When Allen Stringfellow retired as general manager of Armand Lee & Company, a custom picture framer, a decade ago, he decided to fire up his career as an artist--no easy task for a man in his late 60s.
As a gimmick he began to dress entirely in red. "I figured being the artist in red would attract attention," he says. "My name isn't easy to remember, but red catches the eye." Nowadays the short, stout 77-year-old sweeps through the streets of the River North gallery district as a living swatch of crimson. He's red from a festive hat to a striped mink coat to a pair of snappy shoes.
Stringfellow has become so well-known for his attire that it often overshadows his art—colorful collages that depict scenes of African-American life at jazz clubs, dances, birthday parties, and church. One signature piece, repeated in different variations, shows a baptism with a deacon holding a red umbrella over the head of the minister. Another depicts ladies' day in church, an occasion he remembers from his childhood downstate. "The ladies always had fabulous hats, no matter how rich or poor they were," he says. "If you only had one hat, you saved it for Sunday."
Because Stringfellow is African-American and his medium is collage, his work draws comparisons to that of postwar artist Romare Bearden, who created gritty, cubist-inspired pieces in New York City. Though Stringfellow is an admirer of Bearden—and in time became an acquaintance—his own collages are more conventional. "Allen depicts the life of the black middle class, a reality that tends to go unnoticed among his peers," says Sherman Edmiston Jr., owner of Essie Green Galleries in Harlem, which sells the work of Bearden, Stringfellow, and other black artists of their generation. "People may think of Bearden when they see Allen's stuff, but he's warmer and more uplifting."
Stringfellow's father was a nightclub singer who later managed the Club DeLisa, a legendary jazz room at 55th and State. Allen was reared by his great-grandmother in Champaign, where he became enchanted with crafts at the local art center. He attended the University of Illinois and the Milwaukee Art Institute before settling in Chicago in 1941, where he became part of a circle of black artists supported by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and centered on the South Side Community Art Center at 38th and Michigan. The group included painter Archibald Motley, photographer Gordon Parks, and Charles White, known for his socially conscious pen-and-ink drawings.
Stringfellow and William Carter, a WPA artist who became his best friend, veered away from social realism. "I wanted to be an artist without a clenched fist in the air," Stringfellow says. "I thought being a black artist would be labeling myself, and besides, I was never mad."
Stringfellow painted pleasant watercolors, exhibiting them at art fairs on the south side. To make ends meet, he silk-screened store displays for an ad agency. For five years in the 1960s, he ran a gallery in Old Town called Walls of Art, which sought to decorate the entire expanse over a sofa or fireplace with paintings and carvings.
Stringfellow went to work at Armand Lee in the late 60s and in time became indispensable. "Armand Lee, the father, had gotten old and ill, and his son wasn't into the business," says Norman P. Olson, who now owns the frame firm. "Allen held the place together with spit and rubber bands. When I took over in 1983 he was the jack-of-all-trades guy, and I formalized things by making him the manager."
Since leaving Armand Lee, Stringfellow has found a growing market for his collages, which sell for $1,000 to $20,000 and have landed in museums and private collections, including Oprah Winfrey's. "I was living in the CHA when her hairdresser brought her by," says Stringfellow. "I was on my way to an art fair in Atlanta. She bought 15 collages."
William Carter died five years ago. "I miss him every day, but I can get past death," Stringfellow says. He keeps busy fashioning new collages out of paper, snippets of cloth, and old magazines in the spare bedroom of his Gold Coast apartment. And he's always available to pop over to the Nicole Gallery, his Chicago representative, to chat with potential buyers. "When Allen comes in the door they know that it's him because they see him in red," says dealer Nicole Smith.
On Friday, May 18, at 5:30 PM, Nicole Gallery will kick off an exhibit of Stringfellow's religious-themed collages with a reception open to the public. On Saturday at 1 PM Stringfellow and painter Laurend Doumba, whose work is also being exhibited, will join in a talk at the gallery, 230 W. Huron. Call 312-787-7716 for further information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.