J. Edward Welch

J. Edward Welch

(1918 - 2011)

A self-taught sign painter in Harlem during the Great Depression, late in life this Outsider artist created a large series of collage portraits that celebrated historically significant black Americans from all professions. His portraits-as-signs engage in social commentary as they captivate viewers with colorful hand-painted text, shiny vinyl letters, and stickers.

Black Portraits as Signs of Our Times

Ed Welch in his studio apartment in Newport News in 2007

I came to know Ed Welch during several visits to his studio-apartment between 2007–10.  Ed grew up in rural North Carolina in the 1920s where, every day after attending a local a one-room schoolhouse, he picked peanuts or cotton. During the Great Depression his mother moved with her teenage son to New York and they settled in Harlem where in high school he caught up on his reading ability. After graduating, he became a successful sign painter. When World War II broke out he joined the U.S. Army and became a Sergeant in the tank corps in the Italian campaign. He then served in the Air Force during the Korean War. Ultimately, this self-taught artist settled in Newport News, Virginia, where, after retiring in the late 1980s, he transformed his sign-making style to begin creating a series of portraits that celebrated historically significant black Americans from all fields. During the next twenty years he produced a series of poster-size collages, each typically painted on heavy cardboard or wood. He would then add explanatory hand-painted text, shiny vinyl letters, and stickers. Glitter was often applied, and he even attached objects he felt best completed his biographic portrayal of the celebrity.

One of Welch’s first poster collages was this self-portrait, which declares his service in two major wars — yet his face is obscured because he felt his patriotism had never been recognized. A broken twig is in his immediate path. The collaged inset at left, from his high school graduation, also shows his face obscured while the inset at right shows him behind bars underscored by “THINK.” The yellow sign above his depiction as a soldier says that he “would like to be an American.”

Among the many notables in his portrait collection were George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Joe Louis, Ray Charles, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, and Janet Jackson. He typically “signed” his works with a modest mailing label whereas he often signed his letters “Sergeant J. Edward Welch” in pride of his military service. In 2007 his works were exhibited at the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. In 2010, Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York mounted a solo exhibition and described his works as “Exuberant, colorful and multi-textured, each of Welch’s mixed-media paintings is a mini-spectacle conveying snippets of social commentary and plain-spoken philosophy that reflect the artist’s voice of experience and his engaged — but never weary — view of the world.”

Ed and a friend hold Harlem House Party, 20s–30s

— Peter Hastings Falk

A self-taught sign painter in Harlem during the Great Depression, late in life this Outsider artist created a large series of collage portraits that celebrated historically significant black Americans from all professions. His portraits-as-signs engage in social commentary as they captivate viewers with colorful hand-painted text, shiny vinyl letters, and stickers.

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