Tina Allen: Sharing History Through Sculpture

May 30 2022

Tina Allen: Sharing History Through Sculpture
Tina Allen: Sharing History Through Sculpture

Tina Allen was an American sculptor whose life’s work can be seen in parks and galleries across the country. She was born into a family of creators and found an innate ability to capture the soul of each subject in her pieces. Throughout her life, Allen would sculpt many leaders and activists who worked to change the story of black people in America, bringing their faces and messages to the public in a way that educated and engaged visitors.  

Despite her untimely passing, Tina Allen has undoubtedly left her legacy on the world. From abstract sculptures found in offices and private collections, to larger-than-life statues adorning public spaces, Allen told the stories of some of the most influential figures in African American history through her art.

A History in Bronze

Tina Allen was born Tina Powell on December 9, 1949. She lived in Hempstead, New York with her parents, both of whom were artistic themselves. Her father was Gordon “Specs” Powell, a drummer who played jazz for CBS Records in the Ed Sullivan Show band, and her mother was a writer as well as a nurse. In addition to that, her uncle was a sculptor, so there was no surprise that Tina was artistic from a young age.

Allen began her journey as an artist through painting at the age of five. By the time she was 10, Allen family had moved to her mother’s homeland of Grenada in the West Indies, where her talent was discovered by the Lithuanian-American sculptor William Zorach. Zorach was a prominent and worldly sculptor at that time, and he deemed Allen a prodigy despite her young age.

Although she had originally envisioned herself continuing as a painter, sculpting a bust of Aristotle in high school at the age of thirteen led Allen to discover that sculpture felt more natural to her. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1978 from the University of South Alabama, after which she earned her master’s degree from Pratt Institute while also attending the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

Upon completing her schooling, Allen broadened her horizons by volunteering for AmeriCorps VISTA and even hosting a local art TV show in Mobile, Alabama. However, sculpting was her calling. She created statues for public spaces across the country and spent time living in major artistic and historical hubs, including New England, New York, and Los Angeles.

Allen initially placed her focused on depicting the black male, then later turned her attention to African American women with pieces such as "Ethiopian Woman”. After moving to Los Angeles in 1988, Allen largely focused on sculpting members of the Harlem Renaissance, creating large sculptures for the public as well as smaller pieces for private buyers.

Tina Allen called her art “history in bronze”, and portraying important black historical figures became her life’s work. Sadly, she passed away in 2008 at the young age of 58 due to a heart attack resulting from complications from pneumonia. Although the positivity and intuition of this artist will be missed, her contributions to the art community and to the world continue to be recognized and remembered through her sculptures.

Tina Allen Sculptures and Artwork

Tina Allen focused primarily on activists who made a difference in the history of African Americans as well as the greater African diaspora. While she began sculpting images of black folks and families, much of her focus turned to prominent member of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. She wanted to honor and recognize these leaders as well as to create a positive representation of black folks in America.

Allen’s debut piece was a nine-foot bronze statue of A. Philip Randolph. Randolph was the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a labor union that was founded in 1925 with the mission to improve the hours, pay, treatment, and overall working conditions of African American railroad porters and maids employed by the Pullman Company, a major railroad car manufacturer and operator at the time.  

Allen won an $85,000 commission for the project after entering a contest in Boston. The statue of Randolph was commissioned in 1986 and can be viewed in the Back Bay commuter train station in Boston, Massachusetts. It can also be found featured on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, a walking tour of sites that pertain to the evolution of women's history in Boston.

For two decades, Allen created small and large-scale sculptures of movers and shakers in African American history, including over a dozen realistic sculptures of black activists for public spaces, each uniquely life-like with a distinct personality and expression.

Before each project, Allen would study photographs and even interview individuals who may have known the subject. Allen spoke of being able to feel her subjects as if they were speaking to her, and that she aimed to bring soul into each piece. In a 2003 interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Allen stated,

“I’m looking at myself as speaking about the heart and soul of a people, and making sure they’re not forgotten, making sure they don’t feel ignored…I like to think it’s useful pieces of art as opposed to just decorative.”

Some of the famous activists and leaders that Allen was commissioned to create include the following:

  • Alex Haley
  • Lillian Mobley
  • Sammy Davis Jr.
  • Ralph Bunche
  • Marcus Garvey
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Charles Drew
  • Tupac Shakur
  • George Washington Carver
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Betty Shabazz
  • Nat King Cole
  • James Baldwin
  • Dorothy Dandridge
  • Celes King III
  • Malcolm X
  • Nelson Mandela

In addition to realistic statues, Allen also created many smaller, more abstract pieces. These were often made for private collectors rather than for public spaces, with a few famous collectors including Hilary Rodham Clinton, Muhammad Ali, Denzel Washington, and Robert DeNiro. Next, we’ll take a closer look a at just a few of Allen’s most popular sculptures.

Alex Haley

One of Allen’s best-known sculptures is that of Alex Haley, an African American writer and the author of the controversial 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The statue stands a whopping 13 feet tall and is made of bronze. Installed in 1998, it can be found in the Haley Heritage Square Park in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Despite the size of the statue, Haley is represented in a seated pose as a way of bringing him closer to the people, which was, in fact, also the reason for the scale. In a 1998 interview with the Knoxville News-Sentinel in Tennessee, Allen stated,

“I want to see kids climb onto his lap and play hide-and-go-seek around his legs."

George Washington Carver

A statue of George Washington Carver was created for the George Washington Carver Garden at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, Missouri. The sculpture is the focal point of the garden, which was dedicated to the famous scientist in 2005.

George Washington Carver was born a slave, but would go on to do great things, particularly for the agricultural world. Having been familiar with the destructive effects that cotton farming left on natural resources, Carver found a way to counter it by restoring the soil through planting crops such as peanuts and soy. To increase their value to farmers, he then went on to develop hundreds of by-products and uses for these newly abundant crops.  

Allen’s depiction of Carver shows him at around 65 years of age and wearing a lab coat. He stands 6-feet tall and wears a serene, joyful expression as he inspects the flower in his hand.  

Sojourner Truth

A 12-foot bronze monument of Sojourner Truth was dedicated in 1999 and sits in the Memorial Park in Battle Creek, Michigan. The enormous bronze sculpture sits on an elevated semi-circular stage behind a concave wall. A book sits atop a lectern to her right, on which she rests her right hand, her left hand raised as she speaks to an imagined audience. The lectern is adorned with a bronze plaque telling of Truth’s life, while quotes decorate the wall behind her.

Sojourner Truth was born into slavery, but escaped with her daughter and later sued to free her son. Throughout the rest of her over 100 years of life, Truth followed a mission of delivering anti-slavery messages of abolition and suffrage. She traveled through nearly twenty sates and used humor, wit, and song in her speeches.

Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan in 1857 and remained there until she passed 27 years later. The community of the area inspired the vision that Allen found when creating this sculpture, and the sculpture was dedicated to the people, just as Truth was during her time spent there.

Tupac Shakur

Allen was commissioned to create a bronze memorial statue of musician and activist Tupac Shakur. The statue stands 6-feet tall and sits at the center of the six-acre Peace Garden inside a fountain shaped like the gothic cross associated with Tupac.

Tupac Shakur, better known by his stage name 2Pac, was one of the most influential rappers in history, largely due to his controversial lyrics that aimed to change the way people think. Tupac is depicted wearing a suit and a cross while carrying a Bible, and the inscription on the pedestal quotes Tupac with,

"I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world." 

He desired to help his community triumph over systemic and societal obstacles, and his vision of love and hope is reflected in Allen’s sculpture.

The statue was unveiled on September 13, 2005, at the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts (TASCA) in Atlanta, Georgia. The community event happened on the 9th anniversary of his death and was accompanied by a live musical performance from the Tupac Summer Performing Arts Camp kids as well as a discussion with TASCA founder Afeni Shakur.

Private Pieces and Other Commissions

Tina Allen had a thriving artistic career. Many of her sculptures were made for the people and are still spreading Allen’s message of love and inclusion today. Along with her public sculptures found in parks and gardens, Allen also became part of the permanent collections of the following prominent institutions:

  • The Schomburg Center for Black Culture in Long Island, New York
  • The Pratt Institute in New York
  • The Museum of Afro-American Art in Los Angeles
  • The King Center in Atlanta

In addition to her statues, Allen was also commissioned to create a bronze medallion for the Women of Essence Awards, as well as a bas-relief of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Charles R. Drew that can be found at the King Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science.

Final Thoughts

Tina Allen’s sculptures embody life, purpose, and hope. Community and education were what directed her life and her work, often resulting in large-scale and interactive sculptures of some of the most prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance and African American History. Allen was drawn to sculpture and felt the pieces communicate with her through the clay, and her creations can still be visited in parks and galleries across the country.