I live in Houston and have worked as a nurse. I have a lifelong passion for traveling, nature, and photography (preferably all together!).
Looking into the heart, soul, and character of a gentleman who also happens to be a renowned artist by the name of Charles Criner has been my husband's and my great pleasure. Being able even to call him a friend enriches us beyond belief.
My husband was on the board at the Museum of Printing History, now called The Printing Museum, in Houston, Texas. Criner was interviewed for a position at the MPH as an artist-in-residence. Thus, I first heard about the artist from my husband, who was impressed with his credentials and warm personality. A few years passed before I became better acquainted with him myself.
Criner was born in 1945 and grew up in the small town of Athens, Texas. Before attending Texas Southern University in Houston from 1964 to '68, he had never slept in a bed by himself. Growing up with eight siblings, he had learned early on how to share. Criner had also never traveled far from home. He grew up not knowing his father, but that did not keep him or his siblings from knowing love, support, and encouragement from their mother and grandmother, who were key figures in their lives.
A story often told relates to Criner's artistic talents, which were recognized early, when he was still a youth. Instead of joining with the majority of the other town's residents in manual labor and harvesting peas from the nearby fields, he instead produced art for the trucks that hauled such produce.
With early encouragement from his mother, grandmother, and even people from his church for whom he also created art, a career as an artist became his destiny.
Texas Southern University and Dr. John Biggers
Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, was still called Texas State University for Negroes when Dr. John Biggers signed on to head up the art department. His tenure of teaching, inspiring, and nurturing students in artistic expressions that addressed the roots of each student’s very core being would last for 34 years. The majority of his students had come from large families with similar backgrounds to that of Criner.
Dr. Biggers, a renowned artist in his own right, became not only an instructor but also a beloved mentor and father figure to his students. On Sunday mornings, many of his students would meet at his home. They would sit in his backyard and listen to the sound of the waterfall splashing over rocks or inside his home and studio if the weather was inclement. The doctor and his students discussed not only art but also everyday life, and lifelong friendships developed in many cases.
Dr. Biggers' Artistic Journey
Dr. Biggers learned from observing the works of past European master painters. He also lived for a while with great creatives Charles White, a visual artist, and Betty Catlett (Charles White's wife), a sculptor.
In a video Criner made of "Doc" Biggers, he states that the "glory of God" passed over him as he watched these two consummate artists create their works. He felt happy to do their dishes for them in slight repayment for their housing and mentoring. Forever after, Dr. Biggers felt good if his drawings were "solved in a Charles White manner."
He also did a six-month fellowship in Africa. What he brought back from that experience inspired him. Everything Dr. Biggers had learned, he passed on to his students, as he truly felt that his students were "his greatest work."
Dr. Biggers' Legacy
Dr. Biggers passed on standard art theory and techniques to his students, but he also instilled a deep sense of the value of creating relevant artwork. He hoped that his pupils would use their newfound talents to do more than just paint pretty pictures.
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Since most of his students were of African-American heritage and had lived through the civil rights movement, there were indeed stories to tell. With passing time, if those stories and experiences were not illustrated, written about, photographed, or otherwise documented, many would eventually be lost. Criner, like many of Biggers' other art students, took this advice to heart.
Biggers' Influence on Criner
When Criner agreed to let me write an article about him, he wanted my husband and me to view that video he made of "Doc" Biggers. This was shortly before Dr. Biggers' death in 2002.
It became so apparent to both of us as we watched the tape that this was no typical interview. Yes, it was good and covered a lot of Dr. Biggers' history as an artist and instructor, but it was the people who were influential in Dr. Biggers' life that made the story enjoyable.
We both sensed Criner's love and admiration of "Doc" Biggers. We felt privileged to have seen that side of what helped influence the art that Criner creates. Writing about Criner without mentioning the considerable part that Dr. Biggers played in his life and career would be negligent.
Hands and Faces in Criner's Art
In many of Criner's lithographs and paintings, people's hands are disproportionally large. Most of the people in his work are working-class—many are depicted working in fields picking cotton, peas, potatoes, and so forth. Their large hands tell a story, as the hands are the part of the body that performs this sort of work.
Just look at his piece, "Diva of the Pea Fields," shown above. This hard-working woman's back and hands are exaggerated purposefully for effect. It makes me think of a painting I viewed at the Menil Museum with my aunt that depicted people with distorted masks on their faces dancing at a ball (more on this experience later). I appreciate art like this much more than I might have without the understanding of what motivates an artist to create pieces like this.
Criner also often uses family members or people close to him as inspiration for the faces in many of his pieces. His art is personal and reflects many of the things that he was familiar with when growing up, from church ladies to children playing on abandoned railroad boxcars to people fishing (one of his favorite hobbies) and more. Every piece carries a story that is close to his heart and memory.
Like Dr. Biggers, Criner also had a chance to travel to Africa, and he felt very moved by the experience. The art created from that travel experience is powerful and beautiful. The artist has made series of prints about the Underground Railroad, and he also celebrated Juneteenth with a series of lithographs that were made into posters. He has a wealth of experiences and memories from which to draw when creating new works of art.
I cannot speak highly enough of Criner's talents. My husband and I are the proud owners of several of his lithographs, which we treasure dearly. If you ever find yourself in Houston, I highly recommend visiting the Printing Museum and exploring his work.
Residency at the Printing Museum in Houston, Texas
Criner continues to create his artwork using an antique starwheel oak press from 1830. He teaches lithography workshops, leads tours, and helps educate people about printing techniques at the Printing Museum. If you visit at the right time and get lucky, you might be able to see him working on a new lithograph or printing another one of his creations. Such a sight is a rare treat, as there are not many presses of that vintage still in operation.
Dr. Biggers thought of his students as his greatest accomplishment, and Criner has fulfilled that part of his mentor's dream with his many soaring achievements. If you care to visit, the location of the Printing Museum is 1324 W Clay Street, Houston, Texas 77019.
How I Learned to Appreciate Art
My aunt (my father's sister) had several degrees, including one in education and one in art. She had a brief teaching history but primarily used her artistic talents at home. Paintings adorned the walls, and with the kilns in her basement, my aunt even created original ceramic cabinet pulls. She was also a volunteer docent at the Milwaukee Art Center.
As a widow, she once visited my mother, my husband, and me here in Houston while on vacation. Together, we enjoyed visiting a variety of nearby art museums among other sightseeing venues. We had a glorious time. The reason that I am including this personal information in this article about Criner's art is that I learned a great deal from my aunt on that visit.
When touring the Menil Museum here in Houston, there was a particularly ugly (in my opinion) painting. It depicted people's faces covered by the most grotesque masks but otherwise adorned in beautiful ball costumes and dancing in a most elegant setting.
My aunt was familiar with the artist and explained to me that this particular painting reflected the dark days of Hitler's influence, during which countries were being taken over by his regime. The artist was trying to portray people ostensibly going about their everyday lives and attending balls just like usual. The ugly masks upon their faces represented their true feelings about what was happening around them during the Nazi era.
That, for me, was an eye-opener. I have never since looked at art in quite the same way since hearing my aunt's explanation. What is the artist trying to portray with their talents? In the hands of a masterful artist, simplistic lines on paper and seemingly random brushstrokes on canvas can convey much deeper meanings. Charles Criner's art is a perfect example.
More About Criner
- The Early Life and Work of Texas Artist Charles Criner
This article discusses the life and work of Charles Criner, the Artist-in-Residence at the Printing Museum in Houston, Texas. Also included is a description and analysis of one of his most acclaimed paintings titled "Man Coming Out of the Water."
- Charles Criner Cartoons: The Fascinating Story Behind Them
Artist Charles Criner drew cartoons at an early age. It served him well during his Army days and beyond. He worked for both The Houston Post and The Houston Chronicle newspapers in Houston as a cartoonist. He now works at The Printing Museum in Houst
- Charles Criner's Art: The Meaning of Cotton Picking
Artist Charles Criner has created a series of lithographs and paintings regarding the subject of cotton picking. View some of his creations and learn their meaning.
- Juneteenth, Emancipation, Ashton Villa, and Charles Criner's Art
A look at Juneteenth and how artist Charles Criner honors the memory of the emancipated Texas slaves who inspired the holiday.
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 October 06, 2020:
I am pleased that you found this information about Charles Criner and his art "interesting and informative." Thanks for leaving a comment.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 06, 2020:
Peggy Charles is talented and your write up is interesting and informative.
Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on October 04, 2020:
Charles is such an accomplished artist. He encouraged me to make some lithographs, and he printed them for me. It has been our pleasure to know him through the years.
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on October 04, 2020:
Lithograph is one art medium I haven't be able to try although I know the basics of how it is done. I admire anyone who can master such a complicated medium. This must have been a joy to interview and get to talk with him.
Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 01, 2020:
I am so pleased to be able to introduce the artist Charles Criner to you and others. Thanks for taking the time to learn about him and his special talent.
Christy Birmingham from British Columbia, Canada on July 31, 2020:
Such a great profile on this artist, Peggy! I enjoyed the read :)
Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 10, 2020:
Wow! You are lucky to have a personalized drawing by Charles. Lucky you!
Virginia Billeaud Anderson from Houston, Texas on July 09, 2020:
He drew my portrait. It's hanging on the wall.
Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 03, 2020:
I'm glad you enjoyed reading this. Lithography is a fascinating process, and Charles Criner does it well.
Tolovaj on July 02, 2020:
Thank you for introducing the art of Mr. Criner. I became a fan of lithography after studying the history of illustration. It's a very fascinating subject and it looks artists discover new techniques all the time.
Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 02, 2020:
I am so pleased that you enjoyed learning about Charles Criner and the art he creates.
Rosina S Khan on July 02, 2020:
Nice to know about Charles, his experiences with artwork and the current valuable lithograph art he does. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful article, Peggy.
Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 28, 2020:
Charles will be pleased to know how much you enjoyed viewing some of his work. Thanks for leaving a comment.
Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on June 28, 2020:
What stunning artistry that man has, Peggy! I love is work...and the piece that was inspired by Maya -- one of my favorite writers. Thank you so much for introducing me to Charles Criner...and his fascinating story.
Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2020:
Thanks for your comment.
Robert Sacchi on June 23, 2020:
A fascinating history of an artist and artwork.
Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2020:
It has been our great pleasure to get to know Charles as well as we do. Knowing the inspiration behind his work makes it that much more enjoyable to view.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on June 22, 2020:
Thanks for sharing the life and work of Charles Criner. It's impressive that you and your husband enjoyed such a friendly relationship with him. Great to interpret the work of such a great artist.
Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 22, 2020:
I am pleased that you enjoyed learning about the art of Charles Criner. He is such a sweet man.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on June 22, 2020:
Very informative and fascinating account of an artist and his creations.
Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 21, 2020:
I agree with your assessment of those two pieces of art being "fantastic." He has many more that could also be deemed as such.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 21, 2020: