Bigger Than Life

Humble Detroit artist LeRoy Foster’s work projected a regal quality.
Photographs by Josh Scott

His first name, LeRoy, translates as “the king” in French (le roi), and that’s how he pronounced it, with the accent on the second syllable.

That might strike some as an affectation. But by all accounts Detroit artist LeRoy Foster was as humble as they come. Foster may have lived more like a pauper than a prince or king, but his art often projected a regal quality.

“You would look at his art and it was monumental, with Michelangelo-type figures, the artist he most admired. But he was a small guy with a quiet voice and very gentle,” says artist and teacher Jerry Lemenu, who met Foster in the mid-’80s when they were teaching at Detroit elementary schools through the Omniarts program.

“In his paintings, he made people look noble and strong and fiery, the way he must have felt when he was painting them,” Lemenu adds.

Nowhere is this quality more apparent than in Foster’s mural The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which he painted in 1971 for the Frederick Douglass branch of the Detroit Public Library (a portion of the mural is shown above). He depicted the great abolitionist and orator at several stages in his life, but the one that nearly jumps off the wall is Douglass — who was an escaped slave — as a sinewy young man, breaking the chains of bondage. The figure looks like an Old Testament prophet, Herculean and bigger than life.

Detroit artist and College for Creative Studies instructor Gilda Snowden calls the mural “impressive.”

“There’s some artistic license taken, but that speaks more to who Frederick Douglass was and what he did and his innate power, and I think that was what Foster was responding to,” Snowden says.

Portraying Douglass as a colossus is artistically appropriate, Snowden believes.

“In the case of Frederick Douglass, he was a total power,” she says. “I just saw a documentary on him, and what he did was nothing short of amazing. So for LeRoy to make him look like a heavyweight boxer, I look at that and think, yeah, man, yeah.”

Foster, who painted primarily portraits, was highly skilled in depicting the human form, says Detroit artist Charles McGee.

“LeRoy had a tremendous understanding of the human body and was able to break down the anatomical elements, like Rodin,” McGee says. “He really understood the anatomical structure so beautifully. He painted realistically, but he still interpreted the person in his own way. He did a portrait of me around 1952.”

McGee says he met Foster in the 1940s when they were taking free art classes at the Detroit Urban League. One year Foster’s senior, McGee turned 89 on Dec. 15 and remains an active artist.

Foster typically painted the eyes of his subjects as deep and probing, seemingly boring into the onlooker’s gaze.

He drew his own visage in the same penetrating manner. A self-portrait in charcoal (below) included on a 1990 program sponsored by The American Black Artist, Inc. shows Foster with intense, searching eyes. The occasion was Foster’s 65th birthday. He would live to celebrate only two more.

Born in Detroit in 1925, Foster attended Cass Technical High School, then studied with Sarkis Sarkisian at the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies). He also took lessons from the renowned Hungarian artist Francis de Erdely at the Pen and Palette Club. Sponsored by the Detroit Urban League, the Pen and Palette Club provided training and studio space to black artists. In 1939, when he was just 14, Foster won first prize in that organization’s annual exhibition. The artist furthered his education in Paris and London.

Foster’s work was in several art shows, including a DIA traveling exhibition in 1968 and a 1980 exhibit titled The Black Artist in Michigan at the Detroit Historical Museum. In addition to his Douglass mural, he also painted one at the old Cass Tech building and another at Southwest Detroit Hospital. In 1958, Foster and fellow artists Charles McGee, Harold Neal, and Henri Umbaji King founded the Contemporary Studio. He also taught art at Cass and at the Pen and Palette Club.

But for all his accomplishments, Foster is little remembered today.

“I feel he is a highly neglected artist,” says artist and writer Charles Alexander, who saw Foster on and off since their first meeting in 1955.

“Around 1970, LeRoy signed one of the beams at the Scarab Club (an honor accorded to choice artists), and a little later Mayor Coleman Young made a proclamation honoring LeRoy. But he’s sadly neglected today. The DIA doesn’t have one work by him.” An inquiry to the museum confirmed that to be true.

However, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History has four portraits by Foster in its collection. Three are in storage, but they’ve been exhibited in the past, says Curator of Exhibitions Patrina Chatman. The largest painting, a portrait of the museum’s founder, Charles H. Wright, is on display in the museum’s boardroom. Wright, who was a doctor, commissioned the painting not long before the artist died. He and Foster were also friends.

“Those are definitely Dr. Wright’s hands, strong but gentle — surgeon’s hands,” Chatman says during this writer’s recent visit to the museum. “The reason I know this is that he was my doctor.”

At 19, Alexander was introduced to Foster, a sort of rite of passage for the younger man.

“He had a studio on Woodward and a friend took me there. I was in awe of his work,” Alexander recalls. “He was a very friendly person. And like me, he was also gay, so that kind of opened up a door.”

Alexander, a columnist for the gay-interest newspaper, has written in that publication about Foster’s lack of recognition.

Lemenu says Foster was frank about his sexual persuasion. “He told me early on that he was the gayest guy I’d ever meet,” Lemenu says. “But he was so much more than that. He was a great friend who happened to be gay.”

“LeRoy accepted what we as a society didn’t accept at that time, because he was homosexual,” McGee says. “Everything was in the closet back then. But he was just LeRoy, and that was beautiful. He was a beautiful human being.”

When Lemenu and Foster met, Foster was living in an abandoned theater on Livernois near McNichols. The theater served as his studio and living space. Because Foster was without transportation, Lemenu would pick him up there on the way to their teaching duties.

“It was one big room, and there was a little stage and odd sculptures and paintings in corners,” Lemenu remembers. “By the bed was a giant painting of (singer, actor, and activist) Paul Robeson that he had painted. I just loved that painting.”

Lemenu says Foster had been burned out of his previous home just before they met. The fire destroyed several of Foster’s paintings, but Lemenu says the artist was more upset by the loss of his cats.

Although Foster had an easygoing manner, Le-menu chuckles at the memory of an incident that ticked off Foster.

“He used to ask me to get him brownies, and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, LeRoy. You’ve got diabetes!’ I did it once, but I wouldn’t do it again, and that got him mad.”

At the end of his life, Foster’s diabetes would cost him the use of his legs — and for an artist, the ultimate cruelty: the loss of his sight.

“The last time I saw LeRoy was about a year before he died,” Alexander says. “He was paying a utility bill downtown and we chatted. Soon afterward, he went blind.”

“The end was so sad, with LeRoy confined to his bed, blind and unable to walk,” Lemenu recalls.

LeRoy Foster died in 1993, just before his 68th birthday.

Though Foster’s life was relatively brief, Lemenu says he enjoyed living and had few complaints.

Foster undoubtedly faced obstacles because of his race and sexuality, but Lemenu says his outlook remained sunny.

“He grew up poor, but he said he never thought of himself as poor,” Lemenu says. “He felt that he had everything he needed, including his imagination and his art. And he had friends. He didn’t feel that he was missing anything.”

Lemenu does have one regret, however.

“I don’t own any of his paintings,” he says ruefully. “We talked about exchanging art, but we never got around to doing it.”