Skip to main content

Charles Criner: The Heart and Soul of His Lithography Art

I live in Houston and love writing reviews of the local restaurants and stores I visit with family and friends.

We took this photo of Charles Criner at the Printing Museum in Houston, Texas.

We took this photo of Charles Criner at the Printing Museum in Houston, Texas.

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's Background

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.

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.

Criner gave this poster to my husband and me.

Criner gave this poster to my husband and me.

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 she 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

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:

Hi Devika,

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:

Hi Denise,

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:

Hi Christy,

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:

Hi Virginia,

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:

Hi Tolovaj,

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:

Hi Rosina,

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:

Hi Genna,

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:

Hi Robert,

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:

Hi Dora,

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:

Hello Umesh,

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:

Hi Heidi,

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:

I'm always awestruck by people who can say so much with their art! Criner is definitely has a rare talent. The pea field and butterflies lithographs are fantastic.

Thanks for sharing another art treasure from your area!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 20, 2020:

Hi Linda,

I am pleased that you find the art of Charles Criner thought-provoking. He means for it to be that way. Thanks for your comment.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 20, 2020:

Charles Criner sounds like a very interesting man. I enjoy reading your articles about him. I like his thought-provoking art very much.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 20, 2020:

Hi Manatita,

When Charles reads this, he will be happy to know of your greeting. You are correct about him being "a loving and remarkable human."

manatita44 from london on June 20, 2020:

Charles Criner reminds me of Jos Peart, who hailed from Jamaica but lived in England. He was very close to a white musician who has now become my friend.

Jos left him his paintings to try to promote his art, much of them like Criner's and especially those relating to slavery in one form or another. Yet he was very spiritual.

I have read of Criner from you before. Seems a loving and remarkable human. I send him my Love and best wishes.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 20, 2020:

Hi Bill,

"Dancing with Butterflies" is a joyful rendering, for sure! Charles was in Galveston when Monarch butterflies were there while in transit further south one time. It inspired him to create this lithograph.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 20, 2020:

"Dancing With Butterflies" made me smile. What extraordinary talent, a pure joy to witness. Thank you for the introduction and the share, Peggy.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 19, 2020:

Hi Rajan,

Thanks for reading about Charles, Dr. Biggers, and the artwork that Charles Criner produces. He is an amazing man and artist.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 19, 2020:

Hi Cheryl,

I am pleased that you enjoyed learning about the influences in the life of the artist Charles Criner. Thanks for your comment.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 19, 2020:

Hi Lorna,

Art can indeed be interpreted in many ways. It may or may not coincide with what the artist intended to portray. Thanks for reading about Charles Criner and his teacher.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on June 19, 2020:

It was interesting learning about Charles Criner, his work and the great influence Dr Biggers had in honing his craft. His art displayed here is truly exceptional. Thank you for sharing.

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on June 19, 2020:

This is a fascinating story. Thank you for sharing.

Lorna Lamon on June 19, 2020:

It was interesting to discover more about the background of this wonderful artist and his teacher. I am sure many artists tell a story through their paintings, however, it's not always clear to the viewer what that story is. Another enjoyable article Peggy.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 19, 2020:

Hello Theblogchick,

Charles has created some stunning paintings, but most of the art featured here relates to his lithographs. One of the last paintings that we got to see was a custom one that had to be at least 8 feet tall by 5 feet wide. It was amazing!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 19, 2020:

Hi Liz,

Yes, I have written about Charles in other posts related to his cartoons, Juneteenth, etc. This one was more personal about his life and the influence that Dr. John Biggers had on him and the art he creates.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 19, 2020:

Hi Ruby,

As you wrote, some people are blessed with certain talents, and Charles is surely one of them. If you are serious about wanting a piece of his art, contact me via HP and I will put you in touch with someone who represents his art.

Theblogchick from United States on June 19, 2020:

Hi Peggy,

I really enjoyed your article on Charles Criner. He is a great artist. His paintings are breath taking. Thanks for sharing.

Liz Westwood from UK on June 19, 2020:

You have produced a thorough and interesting review of Charles Criner and his work. I recall his appearance in one of your other hubs. He is a very talented artist.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on June 19, 2020:

It's impossible for me to express fully how much I enjoyed this article. It must be wonderful to know and talk with Charles Criner. I would love to have one of his creations. I do believe some people are born with a special talent, and he was certainly one of them. Thank you for sharing.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 19, 2020:

Hi Pamela,

I loved spending time with my aunt. Unfortunately, we never lived closeby, so I just saw her occasionally. She had planned to come again to vacation in Houston with us, but she died before that happened. She was a delightful person! I'm glad that you learned more about Charles Criner and his mentor and teacher, Dr. John Biggers, who played a vital role in his life.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 19, 2020:

Your aunt sounds like a deligtful woman who taught you so much. Charles Criner was a skilled artist and I think it is great you own some lithographs of his very good work. I think his art that reflected the underground railroad must be very good. It sounds like Dr. Biggers was also a wonderful man. I really liked reading this excellent article.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 19, 2020:

Hi Ann,

My aunt taught me much about art and its meaning, and I have also learned much from Charles. I am pleased that you enjoyed reading this.

Ann Carr from SW England on June 19, 2020:

Charles Criner sounds like a wonderful person. These illustrations are beautiful. I like your story about the masks on the dancers; just goes to show that first impressions aren't always right!

You bring a personal touch to all your hubs but especially this one with the direct personal connection. Very interesting, Peggy. Each time I read your descriptions of your home town, I itch to be able to see all these galleries, museums and outside areas!