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The Album Art of Mozelle Thompson

on Thu, 11/13/2014 - 00:00

The Album Art of Mozelle Thompson
Mozelle Thompson was born on December 13, 1926, and grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before his family relocated to the Garfield area of the Steel City. The urge to be an artist hit Thompson early in life, with the flame of desire growing stronger during Saturday morning art classes at the Carnegie Museum.

In 1944, Mozelle Thompson won Scholastic Art Awards for both painting and fashion designs, leading to his first published illustration in a national magazine, Mademoiselle, at the age of seventeen. A scholarship to the Parson’s School of Design in New York followed shortly thereafter, with additional artwork gracing the pages of Vogue and Glamour, as well as a second scholarship to study abroad in Paris and Rome.

Thompson still found time to regularly return to Pittsburgh, however, creating window displays and fashion advertisements for Gimbles Department Store. In 1953, meanwhile, Mozelle Thompson illustrated his initial record album cover, one of the first African Americans ever to do so. He went on to create an additional 120 similar illustrations before his death in 1969, likewise making him one of the most prolific album cover artists of all time.

Despite such success, the above information cannot be found on Wikipedia or any biographical website dedicated to Mozelle Thompson. Instead, the story of Thompson’s life has slowly been pieced together by Jason Molyneaux, a Pittsburgh-based DJ also known as J. Malls.

“I was listening to a Martin Luther King album from 1969,” Molyneaux remembers of his first exposure to Mozelle Thompson. “It’s one of the albums that you don’t see that much. The illustration was cool and there was information about Thompson on the back cover of the album. In addition to liking the cover, I was just kind of intrigued because I’d never heard of him before. As I started researching I kept finding more and more information, as well as more and more albums, and his story progressively became more compelling.”

So compelling, in fact, that Jason Molyneaux began collecting original album covers created by Mozelle Thompson. During November 2014, over 100 of those covers, as well as an assortment of magazine illustrations and additional artwork, were on display at Most Wanted Fine Arts on Penn Avenue in Garfield.

“I was sharing information about Thompson on social media as I was finding it,” Molyneaux offers in regards to how The Album Art of Mozelle Thompson: LP Illustrations 1953-1969 exhibit came about. “This was over the course of a year, from January 2013 to January 2014. That’s when Most Wanted Fine Art contacted me and asked me if I would participate with their Artist Residency Program. The program was conceived to promote community engagement in the Penn Avenue Arts District. Mozelle Thompson actually lived in the community, so I thought it would be appropriate to do the project with them.”

During his research into Mozelle Thompson, Jason Molyneaux discovered only a small handful of other African American artists creating album covers in the 1950s. William Alexander and Gene Bilbrew were two of them, but their work was strictly for record labels owned by fellow African Americans. Charles Alston, meanwhile, illustrated a cover for Columbia Records in 1953—the same year that Thompson broke into the industry—as well as earlier covers for Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins. Thompson, however, was primarily contracted by RCA and specialized in classical music as opposed to jazz.

“A lot of fine art was used for classical album covers during that mid-century period,” Jason Molyneaux explains. “Even today, I think that’s what you expect to see on classical albums. Mozelle Thompson was very much classically trained and very much a painter, so it makes sense that he was commissioned to do so many classical albums.”

That is not to suggest, however, that Mozelle Thompson simply mimicked the artistic styles of his contemporaries. “I would say in regards to other illustrators of that era, Thompson’s style was unique,” Molyneaux further elaborates. “You look at the other big names of that time and there’s a lot of abstraction and geometry. There’s a lot of very modern-looking art on record covers from the 1950s. Thompson was kind of doing his own thing.”

Mozelle Thompson’s “own thing” inevitably included a variety of styles. “Some of his work looks more like typical illustration, but most not so much,” Jason Molyneaux continues. “Some of it is very detailed while some of the covers are very minimal. He worked in a variety of mediums—ink washes, pen and ink drawings, charcoal drawings, watercolors, oils. He has a very strong line quality, which is something that appeals to me. And that varies a lot throughout his work as well. At times it was very heavy, but mostly it was very deliberate. His palettes also varied, at times being very vibrant.”

Mozelle Thompson was not the only African American from Pittsburgh to make breakthroughs in an emerging artistic medium during the middle part of the Twentieth Century. In 1937, for instance, Jackie Ormes became the first African American female comic strip artist. Matt Baker, meanwhile, was one of the first male comic book artists, entering the industry in 1944.

“I think there’s just something in the water around here in general,” Jason Molyneaux jokingly remarks. “Pittsburgh has produced a lot of talented people. I think in regards to African American artists of that era specifically, Pittsburgh’s African American communities of the 1940s and 1950s seemed to be much different. The Hill District, for instance, was like a city within a city, with a thriving business district and whatnot. That’s before a large part of it was destroyed in order to build the Civic Arena. There were obviously more opportunities within that particular community while it was thriving.”

Mozelle Thompson received an Emmy nomination in 1967 under the Graphic Arts category, quite possibly the first African American to receive such an honor. Jason Molyneaux has also found an old Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article which refers to Thompson as “one of the most promising artists in the country.” Despite these accolades, however, Mozelle Thompson is better known across the nation than within his hometown of Pittsburgh, something that Molyneaux hopes will change over time.

“I think there’s a lot of potential for what I’ve done so far to be recreated on a much larger level,” he says of The Album Art of Mozelle Thompson: LP Illustrations 1953-1969 exhibit at Most Wanted Fine Art. “There are a lot of factors at play. There’s a huge resurgence in vinyl, not to mention a more general interest in anything vintage right now. There are several similarities between Thompson and Andy Warhol, one of which being album cover illustration, which is cited as the only medium that Warhol worked in for the entirety of his career. There’s all of this talk of a new, more inclusive Pittsburgh and there’s still a huge gaping hole where Pittsburgh really hasn’t historically celebrated many African American visual artists.”

Jason Molyneaux has certainly done his part to help spread the word. In addition to the Most Wanted Fine Art exhibit, he has made presentations on Mozelle Thompson to ninth graders at the Obama School as well as parishioners of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Many of Thompson’s nieces, nephews and other family members, meanwhile, travelled to Pittsburgh for the opening reception of The Album Art of Mozelle Thompson: LP Illustrations 1953-1969 on November 7, 2014. A special workshop for children was also scheduled for the following Sunday, with various schools in the region conducting fieldtrips to the exhibit.

“Some of them are going to remember,” Molyneaux says of all the people he has exposed to the works of Mozelle Thompson. “All of those people who remember are going to tell other people, and so on and so on. If I don’t succeed at getting Mozelle Thompson proper acknowledgement, at least I’ll have contributed to the proliferation of his oral history.”

It is a history that not only should be remembered but honored as well—a process that Jason Molyneaux and Most Wanted Fine Arts have already begun with The Album Art of Mozelle Thompson: LP Illustrations 1953-1969.

Anthony Letizia

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