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April 01, 2012

Charles Sallée's Joyous Work

CIA's Scholar-in-Residence Mark Bassett profiles CIA's first African-American graduate

In his important survey Modern Negro Art (1943), James A. Porter praised Charles Sallée, the first African-American graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), calling him “a master of rhythm, so expert that the work is joyously animate. It is as though the artist found nothing but transporting gladness in life.” Fifty years later Sallée remarked: “I was always looking at the brighter side of things … I didn’t make paintings about the effect of dire poverty or cruelty. I was always inspired to do things that were on the upbeat” (1994 interview for WKSU radio). An accomplished and influential portrait artist and interior designer, Charles L. Sallée, Jr. (1911-2006) sought to invigorate his art with grace, individuality, and optimism.

Born in Oberlin, Ohio, Sallée and his parents moved to Sandusky when he was a toddler. There his father, Charles L. Sallee, Sr., by setting high professional standards, established a thriving business as an ornamental plasterer and later as a general contractor. In time, his father’s architectural and plastering work proved to be a major influence on Charles Sallée, who added the accent to his surname (and changed its pronunciation from “SAL-lee” to “sal-LAY”) after falling in love with the French people and their culture during World War II. While a teenager, he often spent summer vacations as an apprentice on his father’s projects, notably on the historic Second Baptist Church, which had served as an important stop on the underground railroad. In 1928, a year during which Sallée also contributed seven detailed and skillful illustrations to the Sandusky High School yearbook (The Fram), Charles Sr. hired a crew to encase the 1858 wooden frame building in brick, lathe, and plaster. By the 1920s, Charles Sr. gained enough architectural expertise to begin erecting a number of cottages along the Cedar Point Chaussee.

After graduating in 1931 from Sandusky High School, where he studied art with Marian Yocum, Sallée came to Cleveland. Here he began teaching art classes for the Playhouse Settlement (later known as Karamu House), an inter-racial arts center founded by Russell and Rowena Jelliffe in 1915. In 1932 Sallée won Karamu’s first scholarship supporting an artistic African-American student to attend CIA part time. In December 1934 the fund was large enough to support a full-time scholarship. He received a diploma from CIA in 1936, after both his own and his students’ work had been celebrated in local exhibitions. Thinking he would enjoy teaching as a career, he used a fifth-year CIA scholarship to earn an M.S. in art education from Western Reserve University School of Education in 1939. Three years of teaching first at Outhwaite and then Kennard Junior High School, between 1938 and 1941, changed his mind about this career possibility.

Between 1935 and 1938, as an artist working on government-funded art projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Sallée created a number of aquatints and etchings in limited editions. Some were intended for model apartments in various Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) projects. Also built with WPA financing, these were among the nation’s first affordable governmental housing units. Starting in April 1938, he then won a series of WPA contracts to paint murals: for Buhrer Elementary School; Sunny Acres Sanitarium (later Hospital) in Warrensville; and Cleveland Municipal Airport (today Cleveland Hopkins International Airport), one of the nation’s first municipal airports. Unfortunately, these murals have not survived.

A better fate lay ahead for the mural A New Day, a WPA-financed “American scene” oil painting still on view in 2012 at the administration building of the (CMHA) Outhwaite Homes Estates in Cleveland. Sallée’s work on A New Day was nearly finished when news came, on 7 December 1941, that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. One month later, on 31 January 1942, Cleveland Press reporter Nelson Moore announced that the mural had been completed, in a piece called simply “Outhwaite Homes”: “A mural in the office of the Outhwaite apartment center at Scovill avenue and E. 46th street expresses the hopeful significance of the new homes. Painted by the Negro artist, Charles Sallee, and called ‘A New Day,’ the picture is of slum families moving from their former environment into the clean, sunlit housing units.” Moore also reports that “Outhwaite tenants were models for several of the figures in Charles Sallee’s mural in the project office,” identifying some by name.

By now the Great Depression was effectively over, as Americans found themselves now rapidly building a united war effort. As quickly as December 1941 Sallée began working as a supervisory draftsman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, preparing tactical maps while still in Cleveland (see Peery; and 1977 resume, courtesy of June S. Antoine). A contemporary article notes that Sallée also “designed camp sites, hospital units and mess halls” then (“Ex-Art Teacher …” Cleveland Plain Dealer 30 August 1947). In November 1942 a representative of the U.S.O. visited Karamu House “to select prints, water colors and oils for reproduction in lots of 300” and distribute these to serve as decorations in “railroad stations, hotels and camps … being furnished throughout the nation for use of colored troops” (“Among the Artists and the Exhibitors,” Cleveland Plain Dealer 15 November 1942). Sallée was among the artists selected.

He was drafted into regular service in 1943, serving at one point as “a cartographer in England.” Several months after the Allies’ June 1944 invasion of Nazi-occupied France, Sallée was sent there to work alongside soldiers doing reconnaissance, where “he helped design roads and escape routes and made signs for Red Ball Express supply truck drivers.” Sallée’s 1977 resume indicates that he designed bridges too. Altogether, he spent seven months in France, finally seeing both Paris and Fontainebleau (Canalos). In his leisure time, he continued to sketch and draw portraits throughout the war. Unfortunately, he lost a large box of artworks one day when a strong gust of wind blew them into the ocean while he was working on deck at sea.

After the war, Sallée found himself receiving fewer portrait commissions, so decided he needed to adapt his talents for a career in illustration. However, what he encountered during his post-war job search, while applying to firms like American Greetings, was not promising: “He ran head-first into the racism of the times …” (Shaker Life). Interviewers would send him away with the suggestion that he sketch animals, or scenery, or people. “He’d stay up all night, successfully complete that assignment, and then be asked to do still life. After this became a familiar cycle of job-hunting, he realized he was not going to be offered a job, no matter how well he drew.” Ironically, when American Greetings was integrated in 1953, the new hire was Elmer W. Brown (1909-1971), alongside of whom Sallée had worked as students at CIA, as teachers at Karamu House, and as artists of WPA murals and prints.

Soon he began instead to do free-lance work in interior design. According to one account, when Sallée started into this field, he “found jobs painting murals in Cleveland restaurants. Wherever he worked, he would see areas which needed interior improvements and made suggestions.… Word spread about the quality of his work” (Canalos). Helen Cullinan has commented: “by combining his artistic training with his knowledge of how buildings come together, Sallée could offer architectural drawing services that enabled him to do elaborated makeovers for residential and commercial clients.” In 1946 Sallée began serving on the Fine Arts Advisory Board of the City Planning Commission, a community service he continued through 1971.

One important early commission came from the House of Wills, an African-American funeral home and de facto community center, which had relocated in 1941 to its current address, 2491 E. 55th Street. But according to Sallée, “my first big job was to convert a Jewish restaurant on E. 105th St. into a nightclub.… I started by ripping out all the partitions and got an engineer to put up support posts. We put in a big revolving stage … I also painted the mural of beautiful girls, and did a South Sea Island décor, which I remembered first-hand from the Phillippines” (Cullinan).

In Jazzed in Cleveland, local historian Joe Mosbrook comments that this Glenville-neighborhood institution opened in 1947 and was hailed at the time as being “beautiful and ultra-modern,” with “multi-colored curved leather booths” (see Mosbrook also quotes pianist Jimmy Saunders’ memory of the room: “the design was like a four-leaf clover. Each part of the clover represented a bar, and they had four bartenders.” The Tia Juana featured live jazz six days a week and featured numerous important musicians, including (during 1948 alone) the Nat “King” Cole Trio, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and the Ray Brown Trio, Pearl Bailey and Eddie Heywood, and Ethel Waters and Fletcher Henderson.

According to his 1977 resume, in 1951 he took a position working as an architectural draftsman and designer for Damon Worley & Samuels, Architects, who specialized in church design, including interiors. Until 1953 Sallée was occupied mainly in specifying carpets, drapery, lighting fixtures, and other details for the churches they built. Beginning in 1954 he return to freelance work and started operating as Sallée Design Studio. In 1960 he was a founding member of the local chapter of the National Society for Interior Designers (NSID), today the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).

In 1962 the strength of CIA’s foundation training and his studies in design were spotlighted when one of Sallée’s textile designs took center stage. He won the national Fifth Wall Competition of Edward Fields Carpet Co., New York. An article in Cleveland’s leading black newspaper, the Call and Post, notes that the tufted rug, with a “Mondrian style” design “carries through the colors of the room, which are gold, bronze, beige and copper” (15 September 1962). The entire room, including the floor (its “fifth wall”), was a Charles Sallée design—and the room itself formed the central attraction of a custom houseboat moored near Public Hall to serve as a clever annex to Cleveland’s 2nd Home Furnishings Fair (predecessor to Cleveland’s present-day “Home Show”). Significantly, in making the award, Edward Fields agreed to manufacture and distribute Sallée’s rug in national markets. At last, it seemed, the artist’s racial heritage was no longer being made an obstacle to his success.

The year 1962 seems also to have seen the completion of an important design for Bill Metz. For many years afterward, the elegant Stardust Room was located downstairs from the Cedar-Lee Theatre, with an entrance near the rear of that building. According to Monica Mandula (now Martines), in a c. 1962 Cleveland Press story, when Metz Catering leased the space it had no defining character at all: “Sallée recognized that the main decorating job had to be done to the walls, since the furnishings consist of round tables and chairs that are rearranged for various functions” (“Walls Tell Decorating Story,” clipping courtesy of Phyllis Asnien). Altogether, the reporter noted, “the room now includes no less than nine different wall coverings, all skillfully blended for a unified appearance.” Over the decades, many couples and friends celebrated marriages, engagements, graduations, births, anniversaries, and other joyous occasions in the Stardust Room.

In 1967 Sallée accepted a position as chief designer for Wagner Henzy Fisher, a prominent Cleveland office furnishings firm, through which concern he earned several important jobs (5; 1977 resume; Plain Dealer 10 September 1967). Before 1970 he had carried out design work for Cleveland Trust, Standard Oil, and the Ohio Savings Building (then known as Investment Plaza), in addition to designing over forty corporate offices and club rooms for Art Modell, then owner of the Cleveland Browns football team.

In 1970 he returned to working as a freelance designer from his own studio, in which capacity he operated until his retirement from full-time design work in 1990. Among his most significant projects were designs for Sears, Cole National, Mark Restaurants (in Mentor, Ohio), the Landmark Stores, and Discount Optical Centers. Cole National Corporation (today headquartered in Twinsburg, Ohio) was even then a major specialty retailer, with several important divisions, including Things Remembered gift stores and outlets that sold keys and eyeglasses.

On 1 June and 29 August 1971 the Cleveland Plain Dealer published illustrated accounts showing that Sallée was “one of a small group of interior designers throughout the country who, through a social conscience, has donated time and talent to low-income families” (Nan Barnhouse, “Designed for a Limited Income…”; and Dwight Boyer, “New Urban Jewels,” respectively). As designer for the model homes of Central Park Place, a new low-income housing project near E. 30th St. and Central Avenue, Sallée selected bright, clear colors “to show what could be done … It should be encouraging to people who don’t have a lot of money to know that it would be within their reach… I’m a problem-solver type of designer rather than a glamorous type where you make things look pretty.” Sallée used all new, colorful furnishings, finding a modestly priced curvilinear bed frame for a young girl’s room, a canister set and glassware in red and blue for the kitchen, and attractive artwork, lamps, and other accessories. Designer Richard J. Felber collaborated with Sallée, choosing complementary carpets, wallpaper, and other textiles.

In the mid 1970s Sallée also began serving on F.I.D.E.R. committees (Foundation for Interior Design Education Research) of the National Accreditation Board—and also on the Curriculum Advisory Committee of Cuyahoga County Community College. His sister June S. Antoine recalls that his advice was often deemed invaluable as other colleges in Northeast Ohio began offering coursework, minors, and eventually more complete degree programs in interior design and related fields. Before long, he was asked to participate in accrediting programs in other parts of the United States too.

A sketchbook kept by Sallée during about 1974-1975 offers a glimpse of his working life, with drawings from life class interspersed with designs for corporate and residential clients, mostly undated. The sketchbook dates a few projects, as follows. In July 1974, he designed one or more interiors for Charlotte Whitmore. His design for the Shanghai Restaurant at 2142 Rockwell Avenue, in Cleveland’s “old Chinatown,” seems to have followed. The Landmark Stores project seems to have occurred that fall, while in January 1975 he created an interior design for Perry Johnson, of 3703 E. 142nd St.

Most commentators believe Sallée’s design career reached its zenith with the 1978 redesign of the 1000-room Hotel Cleveland, which had been erected in 1918 at the corner of Superior and Public Square, but which began to falter during the 1960s. As the supervising design consultant for this mammoth project, Sallée was able to put his father’s training to use, reducing the number of rooms to 500. In the view of reporter Ray Elias, Sallée and his colleagues then began busily converting “a dingy, steel town rooming house into a posh oasis for luxury lovers” (“Inn Gets Sallee Touch,” Cleveland Press 16 June 1978). Stouffer’s Inn on the Square (today the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel) featured numerous French touches, notably the décor of the Brasserie restaurant, which included hand-painted murals by Sallée himself (redecorated in recent years). Dozens of sketches, blueprints, and other papers for this project (in the Sallee family) show that Sallée personally designed the Gold Room, the Whitehall Room, and the Ambassador Ballroom, in addition to the lobby and the Brasserie. As hinted by Elias, however, the Stouffer’s corporate design team reassigned the Grand Ballroom to New York designer Carleton Varney (today the president of Dorothy Draper and Co., Inc.), a decision Elias suggests could have been partly racist in motivation. He calls Sallée a “prominent, independent, black interior designer in Cleveland with a national reputation” and notes that only about one fourth of Sallée’s clients at this time were black.

Only a few additional projects have so far come to his family’s attention by looking through suitcases and boxes of files. In addition to a relatively voluminous number of papers related to the Stouffer’s project, are the following. In 1979 he completed a commissioned portrait of Whitney M. Young, Jr. (1921-1971), the civil rights leader. A dated 1980 blueprint in the Sallée papers relates to a restaurant called the Brown Derby, once located on Wilson Mills Road, Richmond Heights. An estimate for E. F. Boyd & Son Funeral Home, on E. 89th St., is dated 1981. A dated 1987 design for Karamu House redesigns and encloses a pre-existing porch to add 250 square feet to the indoors Bokari Exhibit area. By 1990 Sallée painted a fine portrait of the Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., who led the influential Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland between 1974 and 2008 (Cleveland Plain Dealer 6 April 2008). In 1996 Sallée noted to an interviewer that Michelangelo had always inspired him, being “one of the greatest painters of the human figure. When people question how an interior designer can also be a painter, I think of him—he was a sculptor, painter, muralist and architect!” (Shaker Life).

In 1990, on his retirement from full-time design work, Sallée could now devote full attention to his love of portrait painting. Among the few design projects that can be traced to these years were his design for a patio featuring a round fountain and some landscaping, for the Barrington Golf Course in Aurora, Ohio, opened in 1994; and his designs redecorating the McDonald’s restaurant at 8210 Euclid Avenue with a French Quarter (New Orleans) theme. Since remodeled again, the McDonald’s featured a colorful and romantic mural by Charles Sallée, in the midst of which sat an African-American artist at his easel. Replicas of the ironwork were also used to decorate the restaurant booths.

Only near the end of his life did gradually declining health make a move to A.M. McGregor Home, East Cleveland, seem advisable. Sallée continued to sketch and paint portraits, and even enjoyed an exhibition there of some of his final artworks before he passed away on 15 February 2006. A long-time special friend and travel companion, Phyllis Asnien, was among those who celebrated Sallée’s life during his memorial service. Recalling a tense, racially charged moment at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, while in the military, Sallée had once commented to her: “I could have been angry for the rest of my life, or I could not.” Asnien remarked: “Charles chose the second course; it had to be an extraordinary discipline, but it deepened the man’s character and was transmitted into the genuine compassion he held for all people.… And, of course, this attitude found its way into his art.”

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