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Best known for his emotionally charged portrayals of African American life in the rural South, Charles Shannon was born in Montgomery, Alabama. He attended Emory University, before spending four years at the Cleveland School of Art. In 1935, during his third year in school, Shannon returned to his native state and built a log cabin studio on his uncle’s farm in the small community of Searcy, forty miles south of Montgomery. Though his plans to settle there permanently did not materialize, the summer’s experience awakened his interest in Southern life and culture. "I began to feel," he later wrote, "what this country down here really meant to me. I worked with the Negroes in building my cabin . . . I went to their churches with them, to their dances and drank with them. My last year in Cleveland, filled with this newly realized beauty—I stayed out of school most of the year and painted Negroes and the Deep South from my imagination."
After graduating from college, Shannon traveled to Mexico to study the techniques of the Mexican muralists. In 1936, he returned to Alabama and became an American Scene realist, creating genre paintings drawn from African American life in an expressionistic style of intense colors and elongated, rhythmic forms. Shannon’s work from 1936 through 1939 brought extraordinary recognition to the young artist, including one-man shows, favorable reviews in leading art magazines and newspapers, as well as prizes and awards. In the same period, Shannon won consecutive Rosenfeld fellowships to make a study of Southern types, the first of these scholarships to be awarded to a white Southern artist for work in the South.
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