Who was that guy? You know, the artist; born in 1928, designed clothes, did advertising art, stage design, album covers for RCA? He was from Pittsburgh. Oh yeah, Andy Warhol, right? Not exactly.
True, Warhol did those things, but he only did about 60 album covers. Mozelle Thompson did at least 80, and in addition to the work mentioned above, he also did numerous book jackets and theatrical posters. He was acclaimed as a genius for his work even in his teens.
“It’s ironic that you have this Black artist from Garfield, who early on is said to be the greatest artist of his generation, and then you have this other guy, from the same city—Warhol–who actually becomes that,” said DJ Jay Malls. “And though I can’t say for certain Mozelle was the first African-American artist to do album covers, I can’t find a record of anyone else doing it earlier.”
Malls will be curating a retrospective exhibit of Thompson’s work at the Most Wanted Fine Art Gallery beginning Nov. 2. Malls has acquired 60 of Thompson’s album covers, most done for RCA Records between 1953 and 1966, but he is still working on getting the remaining 20 he knows of.
“I spent about $500 getting the ones I have, but because the remaining ones are rarer, it will cost me that much for the last 20,” he said. “I’m trying to get funding from Sprout Fund seed award–they say I’m still in the running, and Heinz Endowments has an Advancement of the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant I’m applying for, so we’ll see. IKEA is donating 12×12 frames for the exhibit.”
But those are just the album covers. There’s also the Mademoiselle magazine featuring one of his dress designs from 1945, The Ebony #4 magazine from 1949 with five images of him in Paris, and the Graphis Annual 1964-1965, a graphic design periodical that ran a feature on Thompson. And there’s more.
“He did the first dust cover for “Shaft” in 1970, and what’s kind of spooky is that it looks a lot like Samuel L. Jackson,” Malls said. “And I just acquired three theatrical illustrations he did for the New York Times between 1968-1969, Sidney Poitier from “The Lost Man,” also Leroy Jones, Dick Williams and Alvin Ailey dancer Judith Jameson.”
He located another theatrical poster Thompson did, but because of its provenance, it is too expensive to acquire.
“In 1965, Dick Williams directed and starred in a play called “Big Time Buck White” and Mozelle did the artwork for it when it went to New York in 1968, which by all accounts was well received,” said Malls. “In 1969, they reused the art for a musical version called “Buck White” starring Muhammad Ali, who was barred from boxing at the time—it was not as well received. They want $700 for the playbill just because it’s related to Ali.”
The oddest thing about this journey to discover Thompson, Malls said, was the lack of information about his life and family.
“It blows my mind how little documentation there is on this guy,” he said. “The only relative I’ve been able to document is a nephew who is named after him, Mozelle W. Thompson, who’s a big time Washington lawyer and former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. I tried contacting him, but he’s obviously a very busy man.”
Malls recently found some images of him in the Teenie Harris collection that may be helpful. Some are photos of him with some women at a swimming pool in Clairton and another with the late Pittsburgh Courier columnist Phyllis Garland.
“Mozelle actually wrote a column for the Courier too,” he said. “It was called “The Junior Social Swirl.” It was a social column about high school life, parties, who’s going where to college. It ran in 1945 while he was still at Peabody.”
Regardless of how much material he ultimately acquires, Malls will display what he has when the show opens.
“As far as I know, this is the most comprehensive exhibit of Mozelle’s work,” he said. “When it’s all said and done, I’ll probably donate it to someone. It should be seen.”
Thompson died in 1970. According to a Courier obituary Malls located, he was found in the street six floors below his Brooklyn apartment. He had apparently jumped.
The retrospective will open Friday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. to coincide with a scheduled Gallery Crawl. A separate reception will be held the next day from noon to 6 p.m. with Roger Barber as entertainment. Malls will have regular gallery hours every Sunday through the end of the month. The Most Wanted Fine Art gallery is located at 5015 Penn Ave.
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