Oliver LaGrone in Ypsilanti

Oliver LaGrone’s work is among that of featured artists in a Fall 2021 gallery exhibition at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) in Ypsilanti. Over ten years in development, the retrospective was mounted by Dr. Julia Myers, art professor emerita. Meyers visited Harrisburg about 10 years ago to see Oliver’s sculptures at the UCH and Penn State. UCH members Marilyn McHenry and Cordell Affeldt met with her at the time.

Oliver LaGrone
About the Exhibition

Harold Neal and Detroit African American Artists: 1945 through the Black Arts Movement explores the efflorescence of Detroit African American art in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s as artists responded to the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements. The exhibition (Sept 13-Oct 20) concentrated on Neal and ten of his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors, including LaGrone. These artists have been largely ignored outside the African American community. Myer’s exhibit and documentation work is a significant contribution to art history.

“LaGrone may have been especially important to Neal as a role model, mentor and advisor, and the older artist may have deepened Neal’s understanding of Black history, about which LaGrone was very knowledgeable,” Myers says in the exhibition catalog. “Neal’s son Michael noted that his Dad ‘tended to be skeptical of people, to dismiss them [but] not LaGrone, whom he greatly respected’.”

She also described an occasion in 1964, when poet Langston Hughes visited Detroit for three days. “[Hughes] received a bronze bust of himself commissioned from local poet/sculptor Oliver LaGrone. At this ceremony, Hughes said, ‘Harlem used to be the Negro culture center of America. If Detroit has not already become so, it is well on its way to becoming it.’

“LaGrone later reflected, ‘Those three days shook Detroit to its very roots—in a most happy way—Negritude soared’.”

LaGrone Artwork on Exhibition

Oliver LaGrone is represented through three works. The two named busts are typical of LaGrone, Myers writes.

“Sculptures of such [African-American] figures were a large part of Oliver LaGrone’s body of work,” she notes in the catalog. “LaGrone had been steeped in African American history since he was a young child. His father attended college-level normal school for two years and was well versed in African American history, knowledge that he passed on to his children. According to LaGrone, he actually sculpted a head of Frederick Douglass when he was only four years old.”

Oliver LaGrone

The two busts on display were:

  • Sojourner Truth, 1941-1942, faux bronzed plaster, Roy Lee Robinson of Sparta, Mich.; located for the exhibition
  • Portrait of Charles W. Crockett, Jr.,1 1960, bronze, Wayne State Law School

The third item is Dancer, c. 1957, bronze, from the estate of David E. Robinson, Detroit. The connection to Robinson’s son, the owner, was launched by Cordell Affeldt.2

Dancer is unusual in LaGrone’s oeuvre; he tended to do portrait busts of African American historical figures and genre scenes,” notes Myers. “But the work does, in the words of one reviewer, reflect the ‘grace, energy and elongated forms’ of Carl Milles, LaGrone’s teacher at Cranbrook Academy of Art.”

– Cordell Affeldt, ed. Bart Carpenter, The Reporter, November 2021

1A civil rights activist, lawyer, judge, U.S Congressman
2Robinson’s son contacted the UCH a few years ago, seeking to identify the “unknown” LaGrone name on the sculpture. Cordell later put him in touch with Dr. Myers, who was thrilled to be able to include the sculpture in the EMU exhibition.
Oliver LaGrone
Oliver LaGrone