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Charles Criner's Art: The Meaning of Cotton Picking

I live in Houston and have worked as a nurse. I have a lifelong passion for traveling, nature, and photography (preferably all together!).

“Picking Cotton” by Charles Criner

“Picking Cotton” by Charles Criner

Charles Criner Art

More people than ever are now collecting the art of Charles Criner, a favored student and personal friend of the famous artist and teacher Dr. John Biggers.

My husband and I are among those who admire the works of this resident artist at The Printing Museum, located in Houston, Texas. We are also happy to be among his friends and the owners of some of his lithographs.

In this article, learn about the subject of cotton and cotton picking and see a sampling of Criner’s artwork.

Charles Criner at The Printing Museum

Charles Criner at The Printing Museum

Criner on the Meaning of Cotton

“When I was a young boy I loved to paint and draw cotton. My family was so connected with it until it was a part of me. It was the way that we made our living but it was also fascinating in other ways to me. Not only in the physical picking of it, but how we as a race is connected with the plant. The older I became and started to learn our history the more fascinating cotton became to me.”

—Charles Criner

Raw cotton

Raw cotton

History of Cotton

As far back as 5000 BC (according to Wikipedia), cotton was cultivated and used by people. Separating the seeds from the cotton fibers was done by hand in those early days. It was painstaking work.

The tools with which to extract the cotton fibers, including what to do with them, improved over the centuries.

Since ancient times India has exported cotton fabrics. The Indians were the first people to invent the spinning wheel dating back to 500 and 1,000 A.D. They also used a handheld roller cotton gin since the 6th century, according to Wikipedia.

School children learn that Eli Whitney invented the modern cotton gin in 1793. This invention exponentially helped grow the cotton industry in America. Because of cheap land and a slave labor force, most of the world’s cotton was produced in America by the 1830s.

Top Producers of Cotton Worldwide

  • India: 26%
  • China: 20%
  • U.S.: 16% (Note that the U.S. is the exporter of cotton. The U.S. government subsidizes this industry.)

Note: The above statistics are from 2016.

"Two Generations Past," by Charles Criner, 2003

"Two Generations Past," by Charles Criner, 2003

More on Cotton From Criner

“At one time cotton was one of the, if not the most important things in this country. And there was a time that it almost released us from slavery. However, with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, cotton resurged itself and gave the South a new reason to keep us in bondage. Cotton is the reason that six hundred thousand young American’s died fighting the civil war. But cotton is also responsible for our people being here today regardless of the bondage and sorrow that it cast upon us.

"When we wear it, rap it around us, lay our heads on it at night, spread it over our tables and place our food onto it, Wipe our mouth’s with it and put it over our feet to keep them warm, When we view a beautiful white field of cotton that looks like white heavenly clouds, we fail to realize the blood that is on it, the thousands that has been bought and sold because of it. It has been to many generations past for us to make the connection, but it knows, and whenever I view a field of it, I study it closely and create the art to allow our children to see what they can’t see without my help.”

—Charles Criner

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“Still I Rise,” by Charles Criner, 2001

“Still I Rise,” by Charles Criner, 2001

Growing Cotton and the Trade Industry

There were four primary states growing cotton in the 1850s. Those states were Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Vast plantations became the norm, and a large labor force was needed to tend the farms.

Trade between Britain, Africa, and America grew because of the success of growing cotton. People who would become slaves were captured in parts of Africa and the West Indies. Ports in Britain were used to launch the slave ships to America.

Plantation owners in America would purchase the slaves in markets. Families could cruelly be separated depending upon who the slaveholders needed to tend their homes and land. Servants were required to work in the houses as well as manage the fields. The slaves were treated as chattel instead of human beings with the same needs and desires as all people have.

Field hands worked all year long in those cotton fields. From clearing the land to planting, tending, and harvesting the cotton, it was back-breaking work. Children worked right alongside their parents, often from dawn to dusk.

“Underground Railroad,” by Charles Criner

“Underground Railroad,” by Charles Criner

Civil War and the Underground Railroad

The Civil War in the years 1861 to 1865 happened primarily because of the objection to slavery.

Slaves who tried to escape the plantations used the underground railroad. People who sought to help the slaves hid them in temporary places. They also helped transport them. Secret signage aided the escaping slaves to know which route to more safely follow and who might assist them.

Criner made an entire series of posters. Each of those posters celebrates Juneteenth, and that date is known to Texas slaves for their freedom from slavery.

Detail of "Mama Jewel (Picking Cotton)," by Charles Criner, 2000. From a Juneteenth poster printed by Heidelberg.

Detail of "Mama Jewel (Picking Cotton)," by Charles Criner, 2000. From a Juneteenth poster printed by Heidelberg.

Seeds and Survivors

“When cotton is planted today, the seeds are generation grown just as we are, and they run parallel to us as we are in this world. Prior generations of seeds have grown and developed just as we have and has survived and produced generations of off sprints just as we have. The plants has survived through poison in the earth, fire, plagues, and God knows what else just as we have, but through it all, we both have survived together. Both it and us has through all of the things that have happened to us have grown stronger.”

—Charles Criner

"Picking Cotton" Series of Paintings

Note the similarity of the cotton at the bottom of these lithographs and Criner's subsequent paintings. I think that this self-directed project of producing 40 paintings in this series is exciting. The subject matter at the top of each painting varies widely, and each piece tells a story. Pictured here is a small sampling of what he has created.

“This series is the first seven in forty paintings. I have no idea when all forty will be finished, maybe never, but my goal is to finish forty paintings on paper, Using cotton on the bottom half with different images for the top halves. I suppose the idea for these images came as the result of viewing the paintings of Helga by Andrew Wyeth. He used the daughter of a friend for a model and made studies of her. He painted and drew her for fifteen years before he allowed anyone to view his works.”

—Charles Criner

Cotton Facts

  • Types: The most common type of cotton grown in the United States is upland. The other predominant types of cotton grown around the world in addition to upland are Egyptian, Asiatic, sea island, and American Pima.
  • Growing regions: Cotton grows on a shrub in tropical and subtropical regions of the world.
  • U.S. cotton belt: The cotton belt in the United States now consists of 14 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
  • Colors: In addition to white, naturally occurring cotton colors include green, pink, and brown. Most cultivated cotton is of the white variety.
  • Harvesting methods: From the 1950s going forward most cotton is now harvested mechanically by cotton-picking machines in developed countries. In less developed countries it is still hand-picked.
  • Uses: Most cotton is turned into textiles. However, some of it ends up in making high-quality paper, coffee filters, fish netting, etc.
  • Byproducts: Cottonseed oil and cottonseed meal are useful cotton byproducts.
Raw cotton locks in a split open cotton boll with burs holding the cotton

Raw cotton locks in a split open cotton boll with burs holding the cotton

Cotton Terminology

  • Boll: The seed pod of a cotton plant. About 45 days after bolls appear on a cotton plant, the bolls begin to split open into segments called carpels.
  • Carpel: A boll segment.
  • Bur: A dried carpel. The bur holds the bits of cotton (locks) in place until dried and ready for picking.
  • Lock: Bit of cotton in the bur.

In the photo above, you can easily see these parts of the cotton plant.

"Morning Dew," by Charles Criner, 1999

"Morning Dew," by Charles Criner, 1999

Storytelling Through Art

It is easy to see how talented Criner is by only viewing a few of his lithographs and paintings. The artist tells the story of his people through the art that he creates.

If purchasing some of Criner’s art is of interest to you, call this number: 713-594-2704. His representative will be happy to assist you. You can visit The Printing Museum located at 1324 W Clay St., Houston, Texas 77019, to meet and visit with the artist. He would be more than happy to get to know you.


More About Charles Criner

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Peggy Woods


Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 07, 2020:

Hi Randy,

You are correct about the timing of this article and what is happening all across our land right now. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

Randy on August 07, 2020:

Charles Criner is such an amazing talent. How appropriate to read this tribute during the current explosion of Black Lives Matter.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 14, 2020:

I am pleased that you enjoyed reading this article. It is great that you took the time to teach your daughter what cotton looks like when grown in a field.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 14, 2020:

Both his art and what it means to him are compelling. I had no idea that cotton comes in colors other than white. I’ve stopped by a cotton field before and picked a little cotton when my daughter was a preschooler so she could understand where it comes from and how it feels in its natural state with the seeds in there. She loved it and so did I.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 27, 2020:

Hello Charith,

Thanks for letting me know that you appreciate this type of writing.

Charith Madushanka on March 27, 2020:

I really appreciate your technique of weaving so many different strands of information into this article.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 27, 2020:

Hi Liz,

Charles Criner has made the same comment to me when meeting him in person. I am pleased that you like this.

Liz Westwood from UK on March 27, 2020:

I really appreciate your technique of weaving so many different strands of information into this article.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 26, 2020:

Hi Mary,

What you wrote is so true. We take so much for granted and often do not realize all of the work that goes into a product. Thanks for your comment.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 26, 2020:

Hi Ruby,

You have done something that I have not, and that is picking cotton. Your experience tells of the back-breaking work that was involved before the invention of the machinery that was invented to take the place of human labor.

Mary Wickison from USA on March 26, 2020:

I wasn't aware of his work. I'm so pleased to see he is showing the life of the pickers. We take so much for granted in our lives these days, even the boll of cotton has a tale to tell.

You've interwoven the art and the history together wonderfully.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on March 26, 2020:

Oh, how I would love to have a piece of Charles Criner art. The history of cotton is interesting as well. I knew about the underground railroad. What a horrible time for black people. I lived in Missouri when I was younger and picked cotton one day and had a back ache for a week. I did it from a dare from a friend, never again!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 26, 2020:

Hi Pamela,

Charles Criner continues to produce art, and now he is even starting to produce some children's books. He is very gifted!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 26, 2020:

There is a great deal of historical information in this article. The paintings and lithographs are beautiful. Charles Criner was a gifted artist and I really enjoyed this article.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 26, 2020:

Hi Raymond,

I am pleased that you liked reading this and seeing some of the art created by Charles.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 26, 2020:

Hi Manatita,

Thanks for your glowing comment about the work of Charles Criner. You captured his essence as a human being and spirit without even meeting him in person.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 26, 2020:

Hi Lorna,

I am pleased that you enjoyed reading this and seeing some of Charles's artwork concerning this subject.

Raymond Philippe from The Netherlands on March 26, 2020:

What a well-written interesting article about cotton and art. The illustrations of Charles Criner are really beautiful.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 26, 2020:

Hi Bill,

Thanks for being the first to visit and comment. I agree that the history is important and Charles does an excellent job portraying it with his art.

manatita44 from london on March 26, 2020:

You write like you are writing for me, right? Now the cotton itself is astounding! Some things just remind me of nature ... of God's creation and this penultimate cotton photo does.

You have walked me through some very interesting history and yes, cotton is used for so many things! I like how the artist describes things and his face is full, of what we would call Light, in spiritual circles. His story would suggest that he came from heaven with his destiny. Much Love.

Lorna Lamon on March 26, 2020:

A fascinating glimpse into the life and work of this wonderful artist. His artwork tells the story of his people in such a beautiful way, and yet still manages to convey the pain and suffering during these times. "Seeds and Survivors" speaks of a strong race, made stronger by their suffering and is inspirational. An educational article which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 26, 2020:

The art is stunning. The history is crucial!

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