The Art of Mozelle Thompson; 1953-1969

Mozelle Thompson retrospective curated by Jay Malls at Most Wanted Fine Art on Penn Ave
Mozelle Thompson retrospective curated by Jay Malls at Most Wanted Fine Art on Penn Ave

In November of 2014, Most Wanted Fine Art will be filled with the album cover illustrations of Mozelle Thompson. Mozelle Thompson was a Pittsburgh artist who was raised in Garfield and attended Peabody High School. There will be eighty plus unique examples of record album covers featuring Thompson’s drawings and paintings, which were produced between 1953 and 1969. This show is curated by MWFA Resident Artist, Jay Malls, as part of his residency.

Mozelle W. Thompson, Jr. (1927-1969)

Mozelle Thompson was an artist raised here in Pittsburgh, in Garfield. He developed an early interest in fashion design and was published in the pages of Mademoiselle Magazine as a senior at Peabody High School. At this time he was also contributing to The Pittsburgh Courier and creating displays downtown at Gimbels department store. Thompson received numerous awards for his artistic ability, which earned him a scholarship to Parsons School of Design in Brooklyn, NY. He was contributing to the pages of Glamour and Vogue before he completed college. Thompson returned to Pittsburgh in the summers to work at Gimbels, but in June 1948 he traveled abroad to study art and fashion in Rome and Paris. His trip to Europe is documented in the February 1949 issue of Ebony Magazine.

Thompson’s earliest known album cover illustration was done for RCA Victor in 1953. There was little artwork associated with the release of records prior to 1939 and the album cover as we know it didn’t come into existence until 1948. Thompson was working in this genre relatively early along with the likes of notable illustrators including Jim Flora, David Stone Martin and another Pittsburgher who began illustrating album covers in 1949, Andy Warhol. Like these aforementioned artists, Thompson also illustrated a number of books, magazines and posters.

Throughout the 1960’s Thompson received numerous acknowledgements from publications such as Billboard Magazine, Graphis Annual, Art Direction Magazine and he even received a Grammy Award nomination for graphic arts in 1967. His career ended abruptly when he died tragically on December 6th, 1969. A handful of projects were released posthumously in 1970, such as the first edition of Ernest Tidyman’s novel, Shaft, which Thompson illustrated the dust cover for and the critically acclaimed children’s book, Lift Every Voice and Sing.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article on Thompson’s passing in January 1970. It included quotes from the likes of his high school art teacher, Jean Thoburn. Thoburn, who was a notable artist herself, taught at Peabody High School as early as 1930. Her students included the likes of Gene Kelly and well-known local artists such as Louise Pershing, George Heppenstall and Mary Shaw. Mary Shaw is quoted in the article “Everyone thought Mozelle would go far.” Joseph Fitzpatrick was a long-time supervisor for Pittsburgh Public Schools, and faculty at the Carnegie Institute, who instructed Andy Warhol and Philip Pearlstein. He is quoted “Mozelle was unforgettable. He had a rhythmic flowing line that was elegant.” While it’s obvious from this article that Mozelle Thompson had a connection with the local art community here in Pittsburgh, he primarily worked in the commercial art world, and that’s probably why his work is so under-represented.

In regards to being an African American artist, working in the genre of album cover illustration, there is no documentation of another African American artist who was illustrating album covers as early as 1953. It would be premature to say that Mozelle Thompson was the first, seeing as there are so many lesser-known and anonymous artists who were illustrating at that time, but he is certainly very early. He is also significant for illustrating as many as eighty unique album covers. Warhol for instance, who illustrated album covers for the entirety of his professional career (1949-1987), is thought to have done a total of sixty album covers (this number includes illustrations created by the ‘Warhol Factory’ as well as albums by artists who appropriated Warhol’s imagery).

Mozelle Thompson’s work has become very obscure in the decades since he passed. In November of 2014 we will celebrate it in Garfield, the neighborhood where he was raised, which is now a hub for the current Pittsburgh art scene. This exhibit will debut on Friday, November 7th, there will be a daytime reception on Saturday, November 8th, 12-6 PM, and the gallery will be open Sundays 12-6 PM through November 30th. Please RSVP that you are attending and stay tuned for more information about events and activities that will take place during this exhibition.




Mozelle Thompson retrospective curated by Jay Malls at Most Wanted Fine Art on Penn Ave
Mozelle Thompson retrospective curated by Jay Malls at Most Wanted Fine Art on Penn Ave