A Philly family shares its huge collection of art by Dox Thrash

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Sometime in the 1940s in Philadelphia, the artist Dox Thrash met a boy who was blind named David McIntosh. Despite being 32 years apart, the two became lifelong friends.

Thrash was a celebrated printmaker who developed an innovative printing process and was one of the few Black artists to join the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. His work tended to focus on the Black communities he was part of.

Dox Thrash at his printing press, circa 1950. (Courtesy of Dolan/Maxwell)

McIntosh, blind since childhood, grew up to earn a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and would rent studio space to Thrash. Although he was never able to see the artwork that has made Thrash renowned, the two hit it off.

“One of the amazing things is how he had this relationship with this fantastic visual artist who sort of mentored him, and gave him sight,” Rollins said. “We think Thrash thrived on that, also.”

That decades-long friendship is at the heart of “Dox to Light: The Life and Work of Dox Thrash,” now on view at Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia.

The relationship expanded when McIntosh married Dr. Esther Rollins. They shared a building at 2313 Ridge Avenue, a building that no longer exists. McIntosh ran a barber and beauty supply shop on the ground floor, Rollins ran her psychology practice on the second floor, and Thrash shared a studio on the third floor with fellow artist Samuel Joseph Brown.

Photos of the Rollins McIntosh family are part of the Fleisher Art Museum exhibit on the life and work of Dox Thrash. At right are David and Esther Rollins McIntosh, who collected about 350 Dox Thrash works. At left is a photograph of Esther (back row, second from left) and her many nieces and nephews. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

That building was not Thrash’s home, which was at 2340 Cecil B. Moore, where a group of preservationists and a community development organization are currently attempting to renovate the space as a neighborhood cultural center. The Thrash house is in the vicinity of other historic houses of important Black artists, John Coltrane and Henry Ossawa Tanner, which are also the focus of efforts to preserve and maintain them as historic sites.

Through their relationship with Thrash, McIntosh and Rollins bought or were gifted over 420 drawings, paintings, and prints by Thrash, from large oil paintings to small portraits quickly sketched on scraps of paper shopping bags. It is the largest known collection of works by Thrash.

Dox Thrash invented the carborundum mezzotint printmaking method while he was with the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. ”Grinder” (left) and ”Churning Butter” were made using this technique. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

McIntosh died in 1972. After his wife Esther died in 2016, their descendants created the McIntosh Rollins foundation, for the purpose of maintaining and making available the Thrash collection.

“Dox to Light” is that foundation’s first exhibition, featuring 41 pieces now on view at the Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia, where Thrash used to take classes and make prints. The exhibition highlights pieces that were personal favorites of Esther Rollins.

“She had a select group of things that she wanted to live and see all the time when she navigated her house,” Rollins said. “She had her friends on the wall, her identity.”

  • October 23, 2023
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