Ahmanson Hall lobby at Otis College of Art and Design

White influenced prominent artists of color and celebrated Otis alumni including Kerry James Marshall, Ulysses Jenkins, Judithe Hernández, and many others. 

By Anna Raya

Every day, Charles White welcomes Otis College students as they file into Ahmanson Hall on their way to classes, their studios, or one of several labs housed within. White’s visage comes courtesy of one of his former students, Kent Twitchell (’77 MFA Fine Arts), and Twitchell’s life-size pencil drawing, Portrait of Charles White, which is reproduced on a wall of Ahmanson’s lobby. Some in the Otis Community might not realize the full weight of White’s imprimatur at the College, but the Charles White Art and Design Scholarship aims to change that. Entering its second year, the scholarship is expanding to include a student from an underrepresented community anywhere in the U.S., in addition to the scholarship already being bestowed on a student from within Los Angeles County (the inaugural recipient currently is a Foundation student). 

Charles White in his studioFrom 1965 until his passing in 1979, White was an Otis faculty member who influenced the work and practice of prominent artists such as Kerry James Marshall (’78 MFA Fine Arts), David Hammons (’72 Fine Arts), Alonzo Davis (’71 BFA Fine Arts, ’73 MFA Fine Arts), Judithe Hernández (’74 BFA Fine Arts), Ulysses Jenkins (’79 MFA Fine Arts), and Suzanne Jackson, all of whom—and more—came to study with him. He was renowned for his figurative style—which ran counter to abstract movements of the time—as well as his representations of Black life and his commentary on social justice issues as seen through his paintings, drawings, lithographs, and murals. As The New York Times stated: “At the time of his death in 1979, Charles White was the most famous Black artist in the country.” 

“If you were an artist of color west of the Mississippi, you wanted to come to Otis and you wanted to learn from Charles White,” says Otis President Charles Hirschhorn. “One of the goals that we have had recently is to return Otis to a place where it was a generation ago. Charles White helped create a legacy of extraordinary artists of color that have grown to great prominence today.”

As the Charles White Scholarship expands to emerging young creatives from throughout the country, we take a moment to acknowledge White’s impact on several Otis alumni who not only are stewards of the social change through art that White represented, but are also essential in their own right for the impact they have made on today’s art world. 

For more information about the Charles White Art and Design Scholarship or to apply, please visit this link

Kerry James Marshall

“Under Charles White’s influence I always knew that I wanted to make work that was about something: history, culture, politics, social issues. . . . It was just a matter of mastering the skills to actually do it.” 

Charles White with artist Judithe Hernandez

Judithe Hernández

“As an African-American man born before the Black civil rights movement, he was already committed to the art of social-realism, and totally understood my need to be part of the Chicano civil rights movement and to create art in the service of a social change.” 

Ulysses Jenkins

“Having the opportunity to get the wisdom from Charles White helped me to formulate the direction of that work that I was about to create. That had a lot to do with the philosophical approaches in his work. I took that as a means of which I could do the work that I did.”

David Hammons

“I stayed in that class a long, long time. But you know it was more about being around a professional, it was like being in the room with [Muhammad] Ali. Or James Baldwin. Just being in that room with that kind of confidence, [that kind of] honesty—that’s what was really happening. Whatever I was drawing wasn’t really that important. The spirit and the energy and the dignity was.” 

Charles White with artist Stan Wilson

Suzanne Jackson

“He taught us and supported us. Charles White encouraged independence in us. He had that spirit of going ahead and taking the risk: ‘Don’t be timid, don’t be afraid, just put the line down. That experience solidified everything for me, that you keep the passion to do it no matter what.”

Main image: Ahmanson Lobby with Kent Twitchell’s Portrait of Charles White in the background. Other images, from top: Charles White in his studio; photograph by Frank Thomas. White with Judithe Hernández while she was a student at the then-named Otis Art Institute. White with former student Stan Wilson. All images courtesy of the Charles White Archives Inc.