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20th Century Art and Artists - Woven With Words


Twentieth Century African American Art and Artists in Berks County

Jessie Didow


Finding historical or archived documentation of African American artists in Berks County was challenging. One possible reason for this is simply the lack of a recorded history of African American artists in the area. Today, however, African American artists in Berks County have many more formal organizations and networks than in the past.  These groups help strengthen a community of artists in Berks County.


One such group is the African American Coalition of Reading (ACOR).  ACOR offers cultural and historical programs such as mentoring; community awards; youth scholarships; Black History Month programs; lectures; artistic, cultural and educational trips; as well as sponsored talks with authors, artists, and politicians.  ACOR also offers visual, performing, and literary arts-related programming such as mask-making workshops, gallery showings, local artists’ exhibitions, lectures, music, the Issues in Action theater program, readings, and creative writing workshops.  The ACOR Gallery for the Arts, located in the Goggle Works Art Center, has as its mission to “provide a cooperative venue for artists in the visual, performing, and literary arts to explore, evaluate, exhibit, promote, and sell their art” (“ACOR” 2005).  The gallery is currently comprised of juried artists who also help to operate the gallery.


            Below is an overview of just a few of the many artists from Berks County’s rich history


Writer: George Hannibal Temple


The first African American writer from Berks County to be published was George Hannibal Temple (n.d.).  An excerpt from The Epic of Columbus’ Bell and Other Poems, published in 1900, reads:


Listen to the Poet’s story
Of an ancient bell,
Freighted with its wreaths of glory,
With its fate as well:
On Alhambra’s mosque it hung,
And the music that it rung
With an oscillating tongue,
Sounded through the Moorish citadel.


Musician: Frank Scott


Frank Scott (1923-1995) was a Reading blues-jazz tenor saxophonist who performed with Bill Haley and the Comets, Duke Ellington, and the Inkspots (Book 2005).  Scott led several Berks bands and recorded several albums, the most recent of which, “Never Too Old to Dream,” was released in 1988 (Berks Art Council 2005). Tagged “The Night Train Man” for his house-rocking signature piece, he was a staple in jazz-tuned Reading nightspots.  Scott owned several nightclubs in Reading, including the Melody Bar, Zanzibar, and two bottle clubs on Penn Street (Book 2005).  Scott also taught music at the Wyomissing Institute of Fine Arts, which has begun a program called the Frank O. Scott Outreach (Institute 2005).  This program provides classes in art, dance, music and drama to young people and is taught by the Institute faculty.  The students at Lauer’s Park, Thomas Ford, and the 13th and Union elementary schools all benefit from the Frank O. Scott Outreach.


Visual Artists: Shirley Newton, Cheryl Moncrieffe, Edward Terrell, Marlene Book, Theron Cook


Peggy Doll and Top Hat Doll - Shirley Newton


The “Alnissa” of Alnissa’s Art, Shirley Jean Newton (b. 1933) considers her artistic abilities to be a blessed gift from God (pamphlet).  She says, “In art, the hand can never acquire what the heart inspires.  God is my author.”  Newton’s preferred medium is a freestanding wood doll, with clothes she designs.  According to Newton, the clothes express her ideas of the dolls’ ethnicity and origins.  She also creates three-dimensional wall plaques, jewelry, African landscape centerpieces, and incense burners.


A native of Berks County, Newton lived in New York City as a child during the Harlem Renaissance.  She has attended schools in both New York City and Reading, most recently graduating from Mindco, a business school for minorities.  Although she only began to display her artwork in the recent past, she has been recognized several times.  She has participated in three exhibitions, winning an award at one of them.  She has also received reviews in the Reading Eagle, the Allentown Morning Call, the Delaware News, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.  During the Black Doll Exhibition at the Philadelphia Convention Center, a portion of her art was featured on CBS.  In 1999, she was named Artist of the Week on the Pennsylvania Art & Craft Internet Show.


Spiral Chains and Chains of Bondage - Cheryl Moncrieffe


As a child, Cheryl Moncrieffe (b. 1973) did not talk much.  She had a much more beautiful means of communication—her creativity.  Years later, her artwork continues to be her mode of communication.  But the message has changed; her work now conveys her beliefs and her concerns with society.  Her creativity has also become a survival skill, a driving force pushing her life forward.  She is inspired by the artwork of her father and of Shirley Newton.


Among the mediums that she works with—metals, ceramics, paints, wood, and prints—metals shine most brilliantly for Moncrieffe, because she feels that she can communicate with her audience most audibly in this medium, and she is most proud of her work with metals. However, her favorite technique is printmaking.


Moncrieffe has been receiving public recognition for her artwork since junior high school.  While attending various Reading schools, she was named “Best Female Artist” every year from junior high to graduation, and she was awarded the top art scholarship to Kutztown University.  The Reading Public Library has featured her artwork in local art shows, and more recently, her artwork has been a part of ACOR gallery exhibits since it was established in 2003.


A mother of four who just received her MFA from Kutztown University and who works, Moncrieffe sometimes feels she should put her artwork aside and concentrate on other endeavors.  But art is a driving force in her life, and its hold is so strong, it won’t let her go (Moncrieffe 2005).


Inner City Jazz - Edward Terrell


Creating a community based on freedom of expression and creativity is what drives Edward Terrell (b. 1948) to do his artwork.  He works with a variety of mediums to communicate with his audience and to give credence to his culture, including acrylic on canvas and board, oil on canvas, papier mâché, and recycled art, but he is the most proud of his murals.


Murals are a major aspect of the African architectural tradition.  The exterior walls that surround many villages and compounds in Africa today display a variety of decorative patterns and symbols that have cultural significance for the community (Lewis 116).  Edward Terrell has helped this tradition thrive in Reading. Terrell’s murals can be found from Reading to Gambia, West Africa.  These works of art are most important to him because they are a reflection of culture that can be seen by everyone who passes by.  The mural he feels most accurately reflects his culture is the jazz mural at 2nd and Buttonwood Streets in Reading.  Inner City Jazz won first prize at “The Frank Scott Memorial Art Show: The Art of Jazz,” sponsored by the Berks Jazz Fest in 2005.  He has also created a mural entitled Looking Back, Looking Forward, near the riverfront by Reading Area Community College, which depicts scenes from Berks County’s past.


Terrell serves as Chairman of the Art Committee of ACOR.  In 2004, he appeared on BCTV’s local arts program, “History, Art, Culture, and Wisdom,” for Black History Month.  He was awarded the Service to the Youth award by the YMCA in 2005 for his donation of time, materials, and professional talents for youth “to explore their own creative skills and go inside themselves and bring out the artists from within” (pamphlet).  Looking Back, Looking Forward facing River Road.  This scene shows an excursion boat on Kelly’s Locks.  This side of the mural faces the Schuylkill River.


For What We Are About to Receive - Marlene Book


Known as Bonnie by friends and family, Marlene Book (b. 1944), who was born and raised in Reading and has one son, has been fascinated with color and light for as long as she can remember.  Book has always drawn; her earliest recollection of using color is sitting on the floor with a box of Crayola Crayons (no other brand would do) and coloring, always making sure to outline the images in black because it made whatever she was coloring stand out.  Even though she didn’t know it then, she was already playing with lights and shadows.


In her early twenties, her husband bought her a “professional” paint box, paints, and an easel.  Upon suggestion, she began taking instruction from Sam Correnti at the Academy of the Arts in the basement of the old Zeswitz’s building at 7th and Penn in Reading.  Over the past few years she has also taken instruction from Paul Flickinger, Fred Wagner, Barton Henderson, and Mary Lou Creyts at the Institute of the Arts in Wyomissing.


Book’s inspiration comes from her family and from nature.  She enjoys painting still lifes, landscapes, and portraits.  People are also a favorite of hers, because she believes that there is always a story to be seen in a face, and there is always a new subject.  Although oils are her medium of choice, she has lately worked in both pastel and watercolor.  Painting fulfills Book and gives her a feeling of accomplishment.  It honors the spirit in and around her, and she hopes she honors her God-given talent: it’s what will keep her painting.


She has recently participated in exhibits at the Wyomissing Institute of the Arts and the ACOR showings at Border’s Bookstore, the Jewish Community Center, Reading Area Community College (RACC), and the ACOR Gallery of Art.


Reflections - Marlene Book


When asked what painting she is most proud of, Book replied that it would be a collage of happy accidents or specific parts of different paintings.  Because she heavily invests emotions into her paintings, this is the one she has chosen.  The photo is of her and her husband, and the flowers were a birthday present from her husband.  Her husband is now deceased, and the light reflecting on the photo represents light reflecting on the past.


The Thinker - Theron Cook


Do computers and robots think for us?  After Theron Cook (b. 1984) dropped his cell phone, he realized how much he had come to depend on technology (Cook 2005).  This realization provided the inspiration for his favorite, as-yet-unfinished painting, The Thinker.


Cook first picked up a paintbrush in the eleventh grade.  He was awarded first place for one of his paintings while attending Reading High, and he also created a mural in the cafeteria entitled Magic Mirrors of M.C. Escher.  A sculpture that he made in high school was featured at an exhibit at Art Plus and he has had paintings displayed in ACOR shows at the Pagoda, City Espresso, and the Goggle Works.  He received a scholarship from ACOR to attend art school.


He is currently in his third year of school at Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia.  Although he focuses on graphic arts at school, he paints at home and is part of the Da Vinci Art Alliance in Philadelphia.  Some of Cook’s works will be were on display at a Da Vinci Art Alliance exhibition, sponsored by the Discovery Channel, in December 2005.


To be a part of a movement toward change, inspiration, and knowledge is what is most important to Cook. When asked if there was something he wanted people to know about him, he replied, “Art is everything, and everything is art.  Everyone has the same opportunities, it’s just how you go about them that’s different.”


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