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A Rare Bookstore Find Sheds Light on the Legacy of Charles White Among His Students at Otis College

A newsletter from 1977—and the then-named Otis Art Institute—celebrates the influential artist and instructor. 
Anna Raya 

Sometimes the discoveries we make through social media can be unexpectedly auspicious. When Director of Alumnx Relations Hazel Mandujano (’03 BFA Fine Arts, ’10 MFA Graphic Design) was scanning Instagram on February 3, an Instagram story post by Other Books, a bookshop and collaborative space in Boyle Heights, caught her eye. The post showed a set of old brochures and art journals that were for sale, and in them, Mandujano spied a few jewels: back issues of the international quarterly, Black Art; a brochure for the 1977 Los Angeles County Museum of Art Exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art; and a Fall 1977 newsletter from Otis College—then called the Otis Art Institute. 

“When I got to Other Books, coincidentally, alumna Pamela Ramos [’18 BFA Fine Arts] also was there,” says Mandujano. “With my husband, Juan Capistran, who’s also an alum [’99 BFA Fine Arts], and the storekeeper, we all looked together through the store’s wonderful stacks of ephemera and new and used books to find the newsletter. That was one of the most special aspects, that there were three Otis alumni just serendipitously together in that space searching.”

Their efforts were fruitful. The four-page newsletter is a time capsule to another era at the College—the campus was still located in MacArthur Park, Jerrold Burchman and Carl Cheng were among some new faculty announced, and The Group was active and busy as ever, fundraising and planning field trips for its members. There also was an announcement of a new bilingual studio drawing class, designed to “increase the responsiveness of Otis to community needs,” in the words of Acting Director Peter Clothier, who wrote: “I hope [the class] will draw interested and talented students from the Mexican-American community.” 

But it’s the back page of the newsletter that is truly remarkable. It features a three-quarter page spotlight on instructor Charles White—who taught at Otis from 1964 until his death in 1979—with photos of him working on his mural in the Mary McLeod Bethune Regional Library in Exposition Park. 

The short article on White ends thusly: “Otis Art Institute is very fortunate to have on its faculty a man with the breadth of experience that Charles White brings to his work and his students. Such a range of experience is necessary because as Charles says: ‘Students come from a variety of backgrounds and I must be able to relate not only to different lifestyles but other approaches to art. As a teacher I must be responsive to the diversity of ideas and personalities.’” 

As an almost footnote on this page are a few pieces of Otis news, including the announcement of new student body officers. Look closely and you’ll see that the First Vice-President is none other than Kerry James Marshall (just Kerry Marshall at that time). 

What we know of White’s legacy now is that artists such as Marshall (’78 MFA Fine Arts) and David Hammons (attended ’68-’72) sought out his instruction when they were starting out. White also had a tremendous impact on other then-students Alonzo Davis (’71BFA, ’73 MFA Fine Arts), Ulysses Jenkins (’79 MFA), Kent Twitchell (’77 MFA), Richard Wyatt (studied with White in a summer youth program at Otis), and Judithe Hernandez (’79 MFA), among many others. 

In 2018, in the centennial of White’s birth, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art organized Charles White: A Retrospective, the first major museum retrospective of White and his work. The exhibition traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2019, during which a complementary and concurrent exhibition, Life Model: Charles White and His Students, was displayed at LACMA’s satellite gallery at the Charles White Elementary School—located at Otis College’s former campus in MacArthur Park—which explored White’s impact through the work of his former students. In the notes to the latter exhibition it was written: “One of the most important artists of his time, Charles White cultivated some of the most significant artists of ours.” He urged his students to be “thinking artists,” to carve out their own distinct points of view. It’s a legacy that continues to live on at Otis College. 

To page through a scan of the 1977 Otis Art Institute newsletter, please visit this link. For more information on Charles White, please visit the Charles White libguide on the Millard Sheets Library’s website here. And for a truly time capsule-like experience, please watch this video with commentary from White’s former Otis students—including footage of his classes—that was prepared for Life Model: Charles White and His Students, below.