Most Wanted Fine Art

Sundays in November
Various times

Albums and the artwork that grace their covers are often inextricably linked, merging the visuals seen on the exterior with the sounds within. Just think about the Grammy Award-winning cover for the Beatles’ 1967 masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band designed by pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, the groundbreaking The Velvet Underground & Nico LP from the same year featuring a sparse yet bold statement of a Warhol banana print (early copies invited owners to “peel slowly and see,” revealing the flesh-colored fruit underneath), or the minimalist modern tones of Blue Note Jazz albums that feature iconic designs by Reid Miles and photographic portraits by Francis Wolff. But just as often, the names, careers and legacies of the artists who created the artwork for albums has been overshadowed or lost entirely over time.

A first-of-its-kind exhibition opening on Friday, November 7th, at Most Wanted Fine Art shines a much-deserved spotlight on one pioneering album cover artist who was born and raised right here in Pittsburgh. On view from November 7th through 30th at the Penn Avenue-based gallery, The Album Art of Mozelle Thompson: LP Illustrations 1953-1969, showcases the work of a prolific African American illustrator who was born in the Hill District in 1926, and who grew up in Garfield and Homewood. Focusing on Thompson’s album cover art, the retrospective will trace the artist’s productive career in both Pittsburgh and New York City, with the majority of works on display representing the years 1958 and 1959.

Explore the work of Mozelle Thompson further during a series of free public programs offered at Most Wanted Fine Art during the run of the show. On Sunday, November 23rd at 2 p.m., the gallery will host storytelling activities for all ages, led by artist and educator Alison Babusci, and featuring Thompson’s 1969 illustrated children’s book, Pumpkinseeds.

Pittsburghers will be the first to view rarely seen or never before displayed artwork by Mozelle W. Thompson, Jr. (1926-1969), including approximately 100 album covers, book and magazine illustrations, photographs, archival materials, and biographical information. Fans of vinyl, album artwork and music, and anyone interested in local history and art, will not want to miss the chance to experience this unique exhibition and its accompanying public programs.

Thompson’s promising professional career got an early boost in 1944, when the talented young artist was a senior at Peabody High School and his fashion designs were published in Mademoiselle magazine. The multimedia artist took classes at Carnegie Museum of Art classes with instructor Joseph Fitzpatrick (who taught Andy Warhol, Philip Pearlstein and Mel Bochner), and even penned a society column for youth that was published in the Pittsburgh Courier. In 1944, Thompson won numerous awards, including a scholarship to Parsons School of Design in NYC. At age 21, he went on to study in Europe, and his travels were documented in the February 1949 issue of Ebony Magazine. In Pittsburgh, where he regularly spent his summers, Thompson designed windows for Gimbels Department store, a line of work that was also followed by another Pittsburgh native and art legend, Andy Warhol.

Showcasing Thompson’s talents for draftsmanship, oil and watercolor painting and illustration, the exhibition also raises awareness about a neglected artist’s legacy and demonstrates a need for and an interest in further research, documentation and preservation surrounding his life’s work. The ambitious undertaking is spearheaded by Pittsburgh-based DJ, record collector and graphic designer Jason Molyneaux, who first started working on the project in January 2013. As the project unfolded via intensive research conducted over the past 12 months, Molyneaux uncovered Thompson’s discography, shed light on his career trajectory, forged new scholarship about his output and has placed the artist’s work within an important social, historical and cultural context.

The majority of Thompson’s album artwork was done for RCA, and the genres spanned classical, ethnic folk, big band, orchestral and pop music. The show includes several record formats, including LPs, EPs and gatefolds featuring his work.

Passionate about vinyl albums, Molyneaux remembers noticing a brief bio about Thompson on an album containing speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. that he was listening to at Jerry’s Records. The record art was familiar to him, but Thompson’s name and history were not; thus launched a dedicated search for background about the artist and his portfolio. While conducting research at the library, and via the archives of the Pittsburgh Courier and Post-Gazette, Molyneaux found that information detailing the artist’s life and legacy was scarce. Thompson’s sister, brother and niece helped fill in gaps where information was missing, while fellow LP collectors as far away as Florida, and many eBay searches, helped Molyneaux locate copies of his album art. With the help of Carnegie Museum of Art’s Charles “Teenie” Harris online archive, Molyneaux even managed to track down several prints from 1945 and 1953 by the legendary Pittsburgh photographer that include Thompson, and three of them will be on display at Most Wanted.

Thompson’s earliest known album cover dates to 1953. He often signed his work, and by 1969, he had illustrated some 90 album covers, which Molyneaux says might make him the most prolific African American visual artist of that era to contribute to album cover illustration. Thompson’s vibrant imagery graces albums by music legends such as Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Gerry Mulligan, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and many more. Throughout the 1960s, Thompson garnered accolades from Billboard Magazine, Graphis Annual and Art Direction Magazine, and in 1967, he received a Grammy Award nomination for designing the Charles Ives: Symphony No. 1 LP.

Beyond album covers, Thompson’s illustrations were featured on book covers, in magazines, on theatrical posters and in the pages of The New York Times. Illustrations for a 1965 paperback version of Anthony Burgess’ groundbreaking dystopian novella, A Clockwork Orange, and the first edition of Ernest Tidyman’s detective novel Shaft solidified Thompson’s early association with iconic modern pop culture works. Thompson also received critical acclaim for his illustrations for James P. Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” which he was working on at the time of his death in 1969. Thompson died tragically at the age of 42, when he fell six stories from his apartment window in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. At the time, he was working as a professional artist and also teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

Along with the artist’s works done in oil painting, watercolor, pen and ink, charcoal and mixed media, the retrospective exhibition also includes a limited-edition exhibition guide, a Mozelle Thompson discography and a timeline detailing the history of album art.

Jennifer has worked at the Mattress Factory, Brooklyn Museum of Art and Dahesh Museum of Art and is co-author of Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania. She also is co-coordinator of Handmade Arcade. Musically, she is in a band called The Garment District and is a founding member of Brooklyn's The Ladybug Transistor.