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“Trying to Catch Freedom” by Artist Charles Criner

Updated on February 29, 2020
Peggy W profile image

I live in Houston, and I have worked as a nurse. My interests include art, traveling, reading, gardening, cooking, and our wonderful pets.

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“Trying to Catch Freedom”

Sometimes when it comes to art, things seem to evolve, and such is the case with this particular piece of art created by the well-known artist Charles Criner.

Many people know him as the resident artist at the Printing Museum in Houston. It is there that he has his studio and also conducts tours, teaches classes in lithography, and more.

From the painting with the title “Trying to Catch Freedom,” a series of poster prints were made. It is one of many that were created and given out free of charge to students while visiting the museum. Many of Mr. Criner’s works of art became posters for Juneteenth celebrations. But this piece of art did not start that way. Continue reading to learn more.

Evolution of This Piece of Art

Below are direct quotes from writings given to me from Charles regarding how this work of art came to exist.

“Trying to catch freedom: was originally a 22″ X 30” black and white lithograph print. The name of the print was “The Underground Railroad.” I believe that I pulled an edition of forty prints. There was a few prints that was either too light or too dark to be part of the edition. Those prints became original paintings. I made them paintings by adding acrylic paint to them.”

The Underground Railroad

You can see the print above titled “The Underground Railroad” by Charles Criner. Here is more explanation of how this print evolved into “Trying to Catch Freedom” from Charles:

“As I added and subtracted from the image, “Trying to catch freedom” emerged. The lady was already there. With a little alteration, she emerged in the foreground and instantly became the dominant figure.

After I had finished painting her huge hands, I thought, this lady is picking something, maybe cotton, but then I thought, no not picking but trying to catch something. The golden ball that symbolized freedom was given to her, and the painting began to paint itself.”

Freedom!

More from Charles in his own words:

“After I had finished the lady trying to catch the ball that I labeled as freedom, the cotton begins to sprang up under her and behind her. It was great that I was able to use cotton. I wanted to include it, but I wanted the lady to be involved with something else, and the freedom ball gave me that opportunity.

Previously I had used the quilt for the underground railroad print, so I included it in this print also. I created slave symbols on the quilt to give it an important image in the art.”

From Slavery to Freedom

Before the Emancipation Proclamation, many slaves tried to achieve freedom by running away and taking the long and arduous as well as dangerous journey north to free states and or up into Canada. White abolitionists, as well as freed slaves and others, tried their best to help them.

Often traveling on foot or any other means possible by night and hiding out by day became a part of that story.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The reward for a runaway slave Source: By Wm. T. J. Richards (Special Collections, University of Virginia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsRunaway slave notices By Contributors to the Daily Picayune (Above newspaper via copy at [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The reward for a runaway slave Source: By Wm. T. J. Richards (Special Collections, University of Virginia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The reward for a runaway slave Source: By Wm. T. J. Richards (Special Collections, University of Virginia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Runaway slave notices By Contributors to the Daily Picayune (Above newspaper via copy at [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Runaway slave notices By Contributors to the Daily Picayune (Above newspaper via copy at [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Signs and Symbols

Many slaves could not read or write, and so oral histories passed from generation to generation. Distinctive signs and symbols denoted safe places and designs on specially made quilts also served in this manner to aid their escape towards freedom.

Underground Railroad Quilt Codes

Many people collect quilts because they have beautiful designs, and the fine hand stitching in their creation is valued. Others collect quilts because of their historical nature.

There were specific patterns built into the quilts, which served as codes to the runaway slaves, and when tossed over a railing seemingly to air out, those quilts told a story.

Patterns on the Underground Quilts

Flying Geese worked into the design would have told the slaves to head north just as would the birds had done in the spring and summer months when temperatures were more moderate. Waterways would have been found along the way, which could help hide scent and obliterate footprints if being pursued by bloodhounds.

A Bear’s Paw would have advised following the paths that bears frequented because there would have been accessing food and water. There was a risk in that, but it was also risky getting caught!

All of the following patterns had specific meanings to the runaway slaves and to the people trying to help them with the use of these designs:

  • Star
  • Sailboat
  • Shoofly
  • Crossroads
  • Monkey Wrench
  • Britches
  • Double Wedding Ring
  • Log Cabin
  • Wagon Wheel
  • Drunkard’s Path
  • Broken Dishes
  • Dresden Wheel
  • North Star
  • Bow Tie
  • Tumbling Blocks or Boxes
  • Rose Wreath

Colors also had meaning. Yellow, in particular, was welcoming, just like leaving a light or candle in a window when it is dark.

The videos here explain the different patterns. They also describe the meanings of the various Underground Railroad Quilt Codes for those who wish to learn more.

Slaves from Africa

Charles Criner continues with this explanation of his print:

“For the print entitled “The Underground Railroad,” I created some people working at the top of the print. Suppose they were slaves just off the ship from Africa coming to America. I created a long line of small figures coming from boats onto dry land.”

Charles Criner in The Printing Museum
Charles Criner in The Printing Museum | Source

“Trying to Catch Freedom” Print

More from Charles:

“As they crossed the top of the painting and went into the woods which occupied the opposite side of the painting, they emerged from Shot Gun houses that was lined along the left side of the painting. When they emerged from the bottom of the houses, they became ladies working in the cotton field.”

For people who may be unfamiliar with this term of a shotgun house, it is a small house with a door in the front and one in the back. It may only be one large room or slightly more, but they are typically small and often without bathroom facilities.

Pair of shotgun houses
Pair of shotgun houses | Source

Painting of “Trying to Catch Freedom”

Charles told me the following:

“Trying to Catch Freedom” was bought by the Federal Reserve Bank on Allen Parkway and is a part of their permanent collection. I also created a larger painting with the same name. The art is 8′ x 10′.

In addition to the slaves coming to America, I also added Sharks swimming up from the cold dark waters to the boats that occupied the slaves.

The 8′ x 10′ painting of “Trying to catch freedom” was bought by Pictures Plus in Houston.”

Showing large size of “Trying to Catch Freedom” painting with artist’s brother Joe
Showing large size of “Trying to Catch Freedom” painting with artist’s brother Joe | Source

Meaning of the Sharks in This Painting

Charles wrote the following:

“After I finished the large painting, I looked at it and decided to create a beach with people being hauled from the boats onto it, and then I remembered how many slaves jumped from the boats to the ocean rather than to be hauled from Africa.

There were Africans dumped into the ocean for many other reasons. However, in every case, there was always Sharks. Every book that I have ever read involved sharks.

I don’t remember just why or how I decided to include sharks for the painting, but it is one of the most natural things that I had ever included in a painting. The water is painted in a little strip that comes from the extreme bottom of the painting to the top. I painted the sharks coming from the deep black water to the bottom of the ship, where the slaves was entering the water.

The shark part of the painting was created in a very small space, and looking at the painting, you might miss seeing how they were created. But once you are aware, the shark portion becomes a painting by itself.

Personally, When I finished the painting, it was dark. When I came into my studio the next morning and looked it, to see the painting of the sharks scared me. And even now I think about it sometime. The water is so deep and black at the bottom. The ocean stretches far below the bottom of the painting, and the sharks seem to come from beyond death.”

By Government & Heritage Library, State Library of NC from Raleigh, NC, United States (Detail of a shark mural) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Government & Heritage Library, State Library of NC from Raleigh, NC, United States (Detail of a shark mural) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Slave Ships

Travel aboard those slave ships took their toll, and many of the slaves died in the passage. The captives were nothing more than a commodity worth some money to the slave traders.

And yet, once disembarking from those ships and if still alive, many hardships faced them in the days and years ahead while in servitude to others of which they had no choice.

The ocean breezes and glistening waters separating the slaves from their homeland would become just a memory for those fortunate enough to have survived the journey.

While the slaves had nothing in terms of possessions from their old world, they carried memories of traditions. They passed them along verbally, and in song, while maintaining their innate dignity until at last, they achieved their freedom.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Railroad

https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/underground-railroad-quilt-codes

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shotgun_house

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slave_ship

God is not merely interested in the freedom of brown men, yellow men, red men and black men. He is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Peggy Woods

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    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Karen,

      That puppet show about the Underground Railroad, and the quilt sounds fabulous. It would be an entertaining way to teach children about this important time in U.S. history.

    • Seafarer Mama profile image

      Karen A Szklany 

      3 weeks ago from New England

      I so love your approach to this article!

      We have the album "Steal Away" and when my daughter was young, we brought her to see a puppet show at our neighborhood professional puppet theater about a little girl who loves hearing her grandmother's stories of The Underground Railroad, inspired by the quilt her grandmother passed down to her.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Manatita,

      This latest virus is causing havoc all around the world as it continues to spread. All we can do is take precautions and pray for the best.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Richard,

      So happy to hear that you enjoyed this article about this painting created by Charles Criner, and the inspiration behind it.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      4 weeks ago from london

      Haha. Funny?

      This word has become like Brexit! Proves me right when I used that poem to say that people are calling for Christ but will they be ready. Nobody wants to die.

      That apart, its been devastating for everyone: Financially, socially, environmentally, Heath and labour, stock markets and don't ask me to look at my pension. God wants us all to know that we are brothers and sisters and are truly interconnected, like John Dunne said.

      I'm 68 (10th February), and slowing down now. So I have not nursed for a year. I was too busy with Africa anyway. I spent a month in the East in 5 countries, but looks like we just beat the bad news. Let us pray.

    • Richard Hampton profile image

      Richard 

      4 weeks ago from Texas

      Enjoyed that article. Very Interesting and educational

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Manatita,

      45 countries! Wow! You might want to curtail some of those travels while the coronavirus seems to be rapidly spreading worldwide. Stay safe! The world needs people like you in it!

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      4 weeks ago from london

      Peggy, if you don't have the time, why will I have it? (Chuckle) I know that you and Mary get around or used to. Yet I have travelled over 300 times and been to 45 countries …. serving, serving … today I was at a Monastery in Bourne End outside London and I came back from retreat in Germany on Monday evening!

      Anyway, you are moving your articles too fast! I can't keep up!

      Yes, yes. We think it's the energy of the Jembe (African drum) and guitar as well as the vocals that did it. One girl is a trained black American singer. We want to take the show to the Edinborough Fringe but we need funding and in any case, I have attended pilgrimage in August, to Jamaica, Queens for the last 38 years! So I may just be able to squeeze only a few days.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Manatita,

      Your performance last night with the other poets and artists sounds lovely. I will bet that the audience enjoyed it immensely. You will be reading more about Charles Criner in the future. My pieces are more widely seen here than on my website, which is why I am gradually moving articles to this site. Right now, I do not have the time to write what you would like. Why not take on that assignment yourself?

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Donna,

      I am so pleased that you liked this and appreciate the compliment on my writing. It is such a pleasure to show off the terrific artwork done by Charles Criner, and share some of the meaning behind it.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Ruby,

      I am so pleased that you understood the great meaning behind this painting. The time of slavery in our country is one that is a dark part of our history as a country.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      4 weeks ago from london

      That is a cruel period of history … but I admit that the Romans were cruel too and that humans have always been cruel to each other The videos are quite touching and you kept switching energies with Linda Crampton in my mind for some reason. You are two of those whom I know, will do justice to that kind of story.

      My commissioned work is called My Underground Queen. I wrote a lovely, slightly intimate poem and was given the story of the painting two days later. I changed the poem, a bit, as the underground that the painter speaks of is the one in your story. I think of Harriet Tubman when I think of My African Queen.

      Six of us as poetic artist/es did the show last night with a large audience and we had rhythm and blues, plus African drumming as we recited the poems with large original paintings displayed. Let my people go was sung. Funny that today you are evoking similar memories.

      Sorry. Your videos are causing me to digress. I hear that Jos Peart, was a Jamaican who was affected by the American slave history and presented this in his works. Why don't you look him up and do a piece on him? I'll be very happy.

      Your story affects me in a poignant way and your videos are very informative. Your man Charles Criner I have heard of before, probably from you. This 'Trying to Catch Freedom' piece is so touching! Maya Angelo cements the story quite well.

    • Donna-Rayne profile image

      Donna Rayne 

      4 weeks ago from Sutter Creek

      Peggy, this is a beautiful piece of art and writing and I enjoyed it very much. I love the way you write, so vivid and makes me feel like I'm taking a trip somewhere else and when the story is over, I say, "Oh, my I'm home now" Love it!

      God Bless,

      Donna Rayne

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      4 weeks ago from Southern Illinois

      Oh Peggy, this is such an important article. All my life, I've held a special place in my heart toward how the slaves were treated. America has much to be ashamed of. I grew up in a small town in Il. We had two black people who lived there and they were not treated as equals. It bothered me then and still does. Mr. Criner's paintings are wonderful. This is my first to learn about him. The thought of sharks eating slaves who jumped from the boats is heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hello Bushra,

      The painting does carry much meaning, particularly when hearing the words of its creator, Charles Criner.

    • Bushra Iqbal profile image

      Aishatu Ali 

      4 weeks ago from Rabwah, Pakistan

      Touching picture!

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi FlourishAnyway,

      I find those quilt codes of interest also. You would love meeting Charles if you ever had the chance. He is such a great guy!

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hello Umesh,

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Pamela,

      It is our great pleasure to know Charles Criner in person. He is not only talented but shares his art and his history freely with anyone who is interested. The underground railroad saved many slaves on their journey towards freedom.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      4 weeks ago from USA

      This was remarkable for its symbolism and the explanations therein. I had no idea what some of the quilt symbols (e.g., flying geese pattern) meant). How fortunate you are to live there in Houston where you have up close access to artists like Charles Criner.

    • bhattuc profile image

      Umesh Chandra Bhatt 

      4 weeks ago from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India

      Interesting review with remarkable details.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Since this is black history month I think this is a perfect time for this mans art to be displayed. I have read about the underground railroad that saved so many black people. I am glad there is so art to commerate this time.

      I think this is an excellent article, Peggy. Charles Criner painted great pictures that reflect that difficult time.

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