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Fri, 12.09.1949

Tina Allen, Sculptor born

Tina Allen

*Tina Allen was born on this date in 1949.  She was a Black sculptor.

Born Tina Powell in Hempstead, N.Y.  Her father, Gordon "Specs" Powell, was a studio musician for CBS Records who played in "The Ed Sullivan Show" band.  Her mother was a writer and a nurse, and one of Allen’s uncles was a sculptor.

Allen began painting at five years old; by the time she was ten, she was setting up her easel to paint the seascape of Grenada, West Indies, where she lived until her early teens.  Allen was an artistic child who began sculpting at the age of 13.  She had already tried her hand at musical instruments. "I had one trump card, so I've been playing it," she said of her choice to make art.

She made her first breakthrough when she crafted a bust of Aristotle instead of the ashtray that was her art class assignment.  Her parents divorced when she was young, and she lived with her mother in Grenada for four years. While there, she met the New York City-based sculptor William Zorach, who was on vacation. A few years later, when she moved to New York City with her mother, she met Zorach again. He became a mentor.  Allen graduated from the University of South Alabama with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1978.  She also studied art at the New York School of Visual Arts, the Pratt Institute, and the University of Venice in Italy.

People described her art as a history in bronze because she always focused on important black historical figures and wanted to portray them through sculpture.  Allen often focused on the Harlem Renaissance. She also had periods of her work focus specifically on Black men, and then she turned her interest to Black women.  After college, she volunteered for AmeriCorps VISTA and hosted a local television show on the arts in Mobile, Alabama, for several years.

Her first major commission, in 1986, set the course for her future. She made a 9-foot bronze sculpture of labor leader A. Philip Randolph for a train station in Boston.   Over the next 22 years, Allen created more than a dozen other sculptures of black activists to be displayed in public spaces.   For every nationally known figure -- agricultural scientist George Washington Carver for the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis or Sojourner Truth for Memorial Park in Battle Creek, Mich. -Allen created one of her remarkable likenesses of a prominent local leader.

"Tina felt an obligation to get the word out about people who make important contributions but aren't household names," said Eric Hanks, an art dealer who represented Allen at the M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica in the 1990s.  Several of her works were created for sites in Los Angeles. Her bust of Celes King III, a founder of the California Congress of Racial Equality, was unveiled at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in 2004.  A bas-relief of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Charles R. Drew was installed at King Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in 1998.

She also made smaller abstract sculptures and bronzes of Hollywood celebrities.  Many of her works are now in museums and corporate and private collections.  She had a special rapport with her realistic sculptures, each one capturing a strong personality. "I'm trying to infuse a soul into these objects," Allen said in a 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel.  One of her most highly publicized works was a 13-foot bronze of author Alex Haley.  She chose a seated pose for Haley because it brought him closer to people. "I want to see kids climb onto his lap and play hide-and-go-seek around his legs," she said in a 1998 interview with the Knoxville News-Sentinel in Tennessee, where the work was installed in Haley Heritage Park 1998.

"Tina said that once she got her hands into the clay, her subjects started talking to her," her agent Quentin Moses. As she sculpted a likeness of Frederick Douglass, "he told me he's not happy," Allen said. It shows in his face, which closely resembles a famous photograph.  "I'm looking at myself as speaking about the heart and soul of a people and making sure they're not forgotten, making sure they don't feel ignored," Allen said in a 2003 interview with National Public Radio. "I like to think it's useful pieces of art as opposed to just decorative."   "I just knew instinctively how to make faces," Allen said in a 2002 interview with Essence magazine.

Tina Allen, whose monumental sculptures of prominent African Americans through history, including abolitionist Sojourner Truth and author Alex Haley fill public spaces across the United States, died on September 9, 2008. She was 58.  Both of her marriages ended in divorce. She is survived by three children, Koryan, Josephine, and Tara Allen.

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