The mystery of LeRoy Foster: African American artist

Untimely neglect of gay painter

by Charles Alexander

African American artist Julie Mehretu was talking to a gathering of high school students in one of the several galleries of Detroit Institute of Art devoted to her gigantic "City Sitings" canvases. (It was during the opening week media preview.)

As I listened to her talk to the students I observed from her look and forthright manner that she might be "family", so when the students left I introduced myself, said I liked her work, and asked her how long one of her gigantic canvases might take to finish.

She said it took her and her assistants usually six months to complete a canvas. I then said I was from Between The Lines, that it would be nice to interview her. She told me to wait 'til after Thanksgiving, then asked me if I saw any of the community touches in her paintings.

When I said I hadn't, she led me to Stadia III and pointed out several tiny pink triangles. It was a pleasant and pleasing subliminal touch. There, but not too obvious. A visual "only if you ask, I'll tell," otherwise a visual nuance overlooked by the average straight museum visitor.

Moving along to other gallery spaces devoted to African American artists I found brilliantly lighted works by greats like Benny Andrews, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Hughie Lee-Smith. Locally there were stunning pieces by Tyree Guydon, Charles McGee, Gilda Snowden, and Alvin Loving (a fellow Cass Technical High School art student).

As I took in the variety and richness of the offerings I realized that the work of someone important was missing from the collections. LeRoy Foster. There was not one picture or print by this Detroit artist, who during the late-40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s was one of the city's most well-known black artists.

Foster, who was born in 1925, studied art at Cass Technical High School, the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts School (now the College of Creative Studies), and continued his studies in Europe at L'Academie de la Grand Chaumeire in Paris and London's Heatherly School of Art.

A fine portrait painter (with many European clients) he was most well known in Detroit for public mural commissions, including "The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass" for the Frederick Douglass Branch of the Detroit Public Library; "Kaleidoscope" for the lobby of Southwest Detroit Hospital, and "Renaissance City," at the old Cass Tech (where in 1986 the picture was vandalized by ink splattering and restored by Foster.)

In 1978, Foster was honored with a City of Detroit Proclamation, presented to him by Mayor Coleman A. Young. Michigan Chronicle columnist Susan Watson wrote of him, "In my time, I've been around a lot of bright, insightful people, but I don't recall ever being in the presence of genius before. I think I would have remembered it, had it happened.

"LeRoy Foster is genius. He is a small, compact man with taut brown skin and eyes that dance in tiny, patent-leather steps. Instead of radiating energy, he draws energy to him like a magnet. Seeing that tiny man, with the tight embarrassed smile, standing beside complex and evocative mural simply took my breath away."

Dr. Charles Wright, founder of Detroit's Museum of African-American History and a good friend of Foster, observed, "He made no compromise. He gave a Negroid appearance to a lot of his paintings ... and that disturbed some black people, but it didn't bother him. He was never free from controversy."

Foster was also gay. (I attended many of his Woodward Avenue studio parties when I was a teenager.) His work exhibits an energetic, masculine, sinewy power that displays the male physique to careful and attentive advantage. (It is perhaps, in our time, a little too obviously the work of a gay artist. Indeed, the Detroit Monitor headlined one of its columns about Foster, "Detroit's Own Michelangelo".)

Hoping to redress the absence of Foster's work in the DIA African American Galleries I spoke to several DIA personnel about him. I gathered a dozen or more press clipping from the Music and Performing Arts Section of the main branch of the Detroit Public Library.

I sent these clippings with a covering note to the DIA's curator of African American Art Valerie Mercer, later e-mailing her to see if she had received them. She never gave me the simple courtesy of a reply.

I last saw LeRoy Foster in downtown Detroit. He was paying a utility bill at the bank. He looked shockingly old, fragile, but he remembered me. (Or, so he said.) He died in 1993, age 67. During his last year of life of he saw no art, his own or others. He was blind.

Sadly, today he's all but forgotten. The DIA (and the Charles Wright African American Museum) shamefully a part of his untimely neglect.

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