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The Early Life and Work of Texas Artist Charles Criner

All types of artwork are on view in many places throughout Houston and the surrounding areas. You may enjoy seeing this photographed piece.

Artist Charles Criner

Artist Charles Criner

Artistic Inspiration

What inspires an artist? Is it something deep within their soul that must come out in some tangible way that the rest of us can see, touch, or experience? Do they use a particular medium to share feelings of joy or sadness? Do they create in order to document their life experiences? Can their creations be used to influence the viewers and perhaps teach us things we would not otherwise know? I think that it is a combination of all these things that makes art and the artists who create it so exciting.

Who Is Charles Criner?

Charles Criner, who is the Artist-in-Residence at the Printing Museum in Houston, Texas (formerly known as the Museum of Printing History), is a prolific visual artist who has explored multiple media across his career. In this article, you'll see photos of him at his workplace and learn about his kind and gentle spirit and the person into which he has evolved.

Charles was born in 1945 and grew up having varied experiences as a youth. He harvested food and cotton from Texas farm fields, worked as a newspaper artist and cartoonist, and was even able to list NASA on his resume after working there as a graphic artist.

What Did Charles Criner Do Before He Was an Artist?

Here, we will focus here on Criner's early days and take a look at some of the fieldwork and labor he did as a teenager growing up in Athens, Texas.

Caring for His Siblings

Before his grandmother Jewel came to live with his family, Charles was responsible for taking care of his six younger sisters and one younger brother by making sure they were clothed and fed their daily meals when his mother was out of the house working. Charles learned to cook at a very young age.

Canning and Farm Work

For a time, Charles and his grandmother Jewel both worked at the Athens Canning Company. Canning was done on a seasonal basis, and what was canned depended on what was grown and harvested at any given time. Crops were picked when they had reached optimal flavor and ripeness.

Once crops were picked, Athens Canning would get busy. After the food got to the cannery, the people employed there begin some serious work. Inventory would be washed, bad pieces would be culled, and good pieces would be prepared for the canning process.

The tomatoes would come to the workers in the cannery in baskets then be emptied into hot water and then placed into two-gallon metal buckets. The workers would take the tomatoes out, remove the hulls, and place them into other empty buckets. For each bucket of the hulled tomatoes, workers would receive a dime back in the 1950s.

In addition to canning tomatoes, peas, and fruit juices, Charles participated in other aspects of farm work, including digging potatoes and sweet potatoes, shucking corn, picking blackberries and strawberries, and harvesting peaches.

In his youth, Charles built 10 to 15 outhouses for the man he and his family rented from.

In his youth, Charles built 10 to 15 outhouses for the man he and his family rented from.

Working With Farm Animals

Charles Criner was very familiar with farm animals, and among other jobs, he at times raised and plucked chickens, caponized roosters, castrated hogs and cows, helped slaughter hogs and helped care for other animals. In asking Charles for more clarification regarding just what he meant by working with cows, this was his response:

“I don’t remember just why I mentioned cows to you, but I took Agriculture from Mr. Payne in school. Mr. Payne castrated cows, pigs, horses, and any other animal that needed it. He hired me and two other boys to work with him. It was an amazing job. I haven’t thought about it for many years.

We would work with a razor blade and a black liquid that was called 'pine top,' which was mopped into the wound after the testicles were removed. After the work was finished, we would take them to a lady who bought them from Mr. Payne.

I also aided my Uncle Harmon to slaughter his hogs every October. And I also helped him caponize his roosters.”

I was not immediately familiar with the term caponizing. Apparently, it means the same thing as castrating. Roosters' testes would be removed to make them less aggressive in the barnyard. It also made them grow fatter and meatier. The neutering would typically happen before their sex hormones were fully developed sometime between two and four weeks of age. Caponizing requires a very steady hand and some expertise because it is essentially a surgical operation. If not done correctly, it can result in the death of the rooster.

Physical Labor

In addition to the jobs mentioned above, Charles Criner also painted houses, cleaned bricks, worked as a janitor, served as a carpenter’s helper, built toilets, planted trees, and dug post holes. Other jobs included babysitting for an older adult for a time, working as a busboy, and working in security. The words below come directly from Charles concerning building toilets.

"The man who we rented from built the outside toilets for his renters. On occasion, I helped him when he needed me. One day when I was about ten years old, I asked him if I could build some for him.

He told me to build one, and if he liked it, he would hire me to build more. It was one of the proudest times of my life. So for a whole summer, I built toilets for Mr. W.M. Brown. I've forgotten what he paid me for each one, but I believe that I built about ten or fifteen."

Charles Criner pulls a lithography print at Houston’s Printing Museum.

Charles Criner pulls a lithography print at Houston’s Printing Museum.

Charles Criner on His Mother, Henretta

"My mother never worked with us in the cannery or the fields. My mother was a domestic worker. She always worked in the homes of people as a maid.

"I never worked with my mother; she was gone from seven a.m. until five p.m. She was a very hard worker. My mother's salary was $12.00 a week. I know because we would discuss what we had and what we could do with it.

"A great day in our lives was when the people who she worked for built a motel in Athens. They hired my mother as a cook and raised her salary. I don't remember what her salary was raised to, but life was better for us. We had plenty of leftover food that she would bring home with her from the motel.

"I didn't benefit from it very much because after she had started to work at the motel for a few months, I came to Houston and enrolled at Texas Southern."

"Man Coming Out of the Water" by Charles Criner

"Man Coming Out of the Water" by Charles Criner

Papa Jack, Fishing, and Man Coming Out of The Water

While Charles may have cut his teeth, so to speak, on a wide variety of chores and jobs, which he describes as “exciting and colorful,” ultimately, they led him to make his living as an artist.

Charles Criner almost always uses real people that he knows or has known as the subject matter in his art. The fisherman portrayed in this piece of art is Papa Jack, who was his wife Brenda's grandfather. According to Charles, he was "the best fisherman in the world. He owned a landscaping company, but he would take off and go fishing at the drop of a hat."

That landscaping company included commercial and residential contracts, and Papa Jack employed about seven people. Some of the business accounts included the telephone and light companies.

Papa Jack also serviced some of the beautiful River Oaks yards. For those unfamiliar with Houston, River Oaks is one of the distinguished neighborhoods where wealthy people settled before mansions started popping up in other places around town. This location still contains a significant number of uniquely designed architectural beauties, such as the mansion at Bayou Bend.

The original 22" x 30" acrylic painting of Papa Jack shows "a man wade fishing in a platted shirt with a cap with hooks in it. His rod is bent, and he is removing a little fish." The original painting currently resides in a New Orleans gallery.

Detail of “Man Coming out of the Water” by Charles Criner

Detail of “Man Coming out of the Water” by Charles Criner

Papa Jack's Favorite Fishing Locations

Charles told me that Papa Jack’s favorite places to fish were Texas City, San Leon, and Locking Dam near Buffalo on Highway 45 north. He also caught fish all around Galveston.

"Papa Jack never used live bait but mostly used dead shrimp, and he did not fish for game fish . . . never speckled trout or redfish. He preferred catching croaker and catfish that he would then sell as soon as he returned to Houston. Mama Lula (his wife) would clean the fish. If the fishing trip proved to be unsuccessful, he would still bring back fresh fish purchased in Kemah."

A Funny Thing

The story below is what Charles related as "a funny thing."

"Papa Jack's house was located at the beginning of a small street that ended one block behind his house. He was a Deacon in church. On Sundays, when the fish was biting in Galveston, the church members would go past Papa Jack's house to attend church. They would see him on the side of his house, preparing his boat for fishing. They would never say anything about his not attending church because he donated the land and built the church."

Papa Jack's Legacy

Sometimes, Papa Jack would call Charles at work and invite him to go fishing. When Charles explained that he could not leave his job, Papa Jack would say something like "You should never work for a place that won't allow you to go fishing when you want to!"

Papa Jack died when he was well into his eighties, and his wife died a year later. He had a good life and is now memorialized for his love of fishing in Charles Criner's artwork. While Charles may not have been able to take off from work, he has carried on Papa Jack's tradition of fishing. It is a pastime much enjoyed by Charles whenever he has the time to do so.

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 March 22, 2020:

Hi Rajan,

The story of Charles Criner is one of hard work, dedication, and talent. In addition to that, he is humble, caring, and kind. He is one heck of a human being!

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on March 22, 2020:

What varied life experiences for Charles Criner and such amazing stories he has to tell. Really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you for sharing.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 21, 2020:

Thanks, Liz. Charles made this easy for me since he furnished most of the information about his past. I love this image he created.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on March 21, 2020:

Hi Manatita,

Yes, we know Charles personally. Thanks for your comment.

Liz Westwood from UK on March 21, 2020:

This is a fascinating biographical article. I love the way that you have taken the picture as your start and end point and how you have interviewed the artist inbetween.

manatita44 from london on March 21, 2020:

A very loving and beautiful Hub and a touching story that kids could do with today. This will inspire them to dedication and hard work. Obviously a gifted man. Did you say you met him? I like the piece called 'man coming out of the water.'

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

Hi FlourishAnyway,

Yes, I think that some people eat those things. Charles certainly had a variety of jobs when he was young!

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 20, 2020:

I really liked the recollections about his mother and the farm. I also learned a thing or two as well. I didn’t know about caponizing roosters. Yikes! His reference to someone taking the freshly removed testicles of bulls and hogs and a lady buying them made me wonder what she did with them. I have heard some people eat them.

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

Hi Ruby,

It is with great pleasure that I share Charles' story with you and others, as well as his art. He is so talented!

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on March 20, 2020:

This was such an enjoyable read. I loved reading about Mr. Criner. and his gift of art is amazing, Thanks for sharing his story and artwork.

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

Hi Pamela,

Charles certainly did work hard as a youth and was forced to be very responsible at an early age. He is a magnificent artist, and there is a story behind each of his works of art.

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

Hi Bill,

So glad to know that you liked the image of a fisherman by Charles Criner. I really like that image.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 20, 2020:

Charles Criner was a very hard wroker on the farm. He is also a gifted painter. He had so much responsibility when he cared for his siblings and you it seems almost a miracle that be was such a good artist. This is another interessting story about a very successful man.

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

Great stories about fishing. You had me smiling throughout this fine article.