by Laura Stiles
Despite our efforts to leave a lasting mark on the world, the workings of legacy are puzzling and complex. How can we ever predict who will someday find the clues we have left behind?
Consider this mysterious Pittsburgh artist: illustrator of book jackets, playbills, and fashion designs, featured in Glamour and Vogue, and illustrator of nearly 100 unique RCA album covers. Pittsburgh artist, you say—Andy Warhol? Not quite.
Mozelle Thompson lived from 1926-1969, his art gracing the covers of albums by musicians such as Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Gerry Mulligan, Hank Williams, and Jimmie Rodgers. He received numerous acknowledgments throughout his career and a Grammy Award nomination for graphic arts in 1967. Pittsburgh artist, DJ, and record enthusiast J. Malls has been painstakingly collecting Thompson’s illustrations, and is curating a retrospective exhibit of his work at the Most Wanted Fine Art gallery beginning November 7th during the monthly Penn Avenue Unblurred gallery crawl.
“It’s hard to say for sure if Thompson was the very first African American to do album cover illustrations,” said Malls. “But from what I can find he was one of the first, and he was certainly one of the most prolific. Nobody else’s body of work was as big—they were maybe 1/10th of what he produced.”
With this extensive body of work by an artist who took some of the same Carnegie Museum art classes as both Warhol and Philip Pearlstein from instructor Joseph Fitzpatrick, it is hard to believe that there is so little information about Thompson. A Google search doesn’t reveal much beyond the work Malls has done to publicize the project. So how did Malls find out about Mozelle Thompson?
“If I wasn’t working on this, I’d probably be researching some obscure record and band nobody’s ever heard of, so I’m used to not finding information about things,” Malls said. “This project started with a single illustration on the back of a record that also included a short bio about the artist, Mozelle Thompson.” The illustration caught Malls’ attention and he’s been tracking down more information about Thompson—and collecting examples of his artwork piece by piece—ever since.
Mozelle’s sister Greta remembers that her brother was always interested in art. “He was very talented, and was recognized for his talent even in grade school,” she said. And even though he may have been one of the first African Americans to illustrate album covers, “he didn’t have to go searching for work,” she said. “People searched for him.”
His career began in November 1944 at the age of 17, when one of his dress designs was published in Mademoiselle Magazine. “He had an interest in fashion and was very social,” Malls said. “After high school, he wrote a column for a summer in the Pittsburgh Courier—‘The Junior Social Swirl’—that was a society column for youth.”
From there he got a scholarship to attend the Parsons School of Design, returning to Pittsburgh in the summers to paint and design window displays at Gimbels. In 1948, he received a scholarship to study fashion and art in Rome and Paris and his trip was documented in Ebony magazine in 1949. “In the feature, he said he hoped to devote his time to fine art rather than commercial art, specifically mentioning he wanted to design clothing for the ballet,” Malls said.
But by that point he had already done much commercial art, contributing to Vogue and Glamour, starting to illustrate album covers around 1953, and creating the bulk of his album work by the 1960s. “By then he had already established himself as the most prolific African American artist to illustrate album covers,” Malls said.
Thompson did many other projects throughout his life, including illustrations for The New York Times, book covers for some of the earliest versions of Shaft and A Clockwork Orange, and a playbill cover for a 1965 Dick Williams production, Big Time Buck White. The playbill art was also used for a musical version in 1969 starring Muhammad Ali. Then the kinds of art Thompson worked on started changing.
“Towards the end of his career, he started doing more African American themed work,” Malls said. “I’m not sure if these opportunities finally presented themselves or if his direction changed.” One such project was album illustrations for Black America volumes 1-5, featuring notables such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King Jr. When Thompson died of an apparent suicide in 1969, he was working on illustrations for James P. Johnson’s children’s book Lift Every Voice and Sing, which was then finished by one of his sisters and received critical acclaim.
“Everyone keeps asking me what I’m getting from putting this together,” Malls said. “I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m doing this because we’re dealing with neglected aspects of history, and I think it’s important and needs to be done. Hopefully this will create more awareness and more need for this in the future.”
Perhaps resurrecting the past entails a few key elements: coincidences and someone with a keen interest and a willingness to follow scattered clues with persistence.
The Album Art of Mozelle Thompson opens Friday, Nov. 7 at 6 p.m. at Most Wanted Fine Art, 5015 Penn Ave. Saturday, Nov. 8 features an opening reception from noon to 6 p.m. with live music from Roger Barber and The Basic Sounds of Pittsburgh. J. Malls will have regular gallery hours Sunday, Nov. 9, 16, 23, and 30 from noon to 6 p.m., and will feature art making on the 16 and storytelling on the 23 for children. For more information, visit J. Mall’s website I Dig Pgh and the official Facebook event.