Charles Criner's Art: The Meaning of Cotton Picking
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. His photo is at the top of this page.
In this article, learn about the subject of cotton and cotton picking and see a sampling of Mr. Criner’s artwork.
Meaning of Cotton to Charles Criner
“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
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 it, 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.
As of 2016, the following statistics show how much cotton comes from various parts of the world.
- India produces about 26% of the world’s cotton.
- China produces about 20% of the world’s cotton.
- The U.S. produces around 16% but is the leading exporter of cotton. The U.S. government subsidizes this industry.
More From Charles:
“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.”
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.
Civil War and 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.
Charles Criner made an entire series of posters. Each of those posters celebrates Juneteenth, and that date is known to Texas slaves of their freedom from slavery.
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
Series of Paintings by Charles Criner
Note the similarity of the cotton at the bottom of these lithographs and subsequent paintings by Charles. I think that this self-directed project of producing forty 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
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. Cotton grows on a shrub in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. The cotton belt in the United States now consists of fourteen states. These include the following:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
Naturally occurring cotton colors in addition to white, include green, pink, and brown. Most cultivated cotton is of the white variety.
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.
Most cotton is turned into textiles. However, some of it ends up in making high-quality paper, coffee filters, fish netting, etc. Cottonseed oil and cottonseed meal are useful byproducts.
Bolls are the seed pod of a cotton plant. About 45 days after bolls appear on a cotton plant, the bolls begin to split open. The boll segments are carpels. The dried carpels become a bur. The bur holds the bits of cotton—called locks—in place until dried and ready for picking. In the photo above, you can easily see these parts of the cotton plant.
Storytelling Through Art
It is easy to see how talented the artist Charles Criner is by only viewing a few of his lithographs and paintings. Charles tells the story of his people through the art which he creates.
If purchasing some of Charles 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 Charles Criner. He would be more than happy to get to know you.
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