L.A. sculptor whose subject was African Americans

Times Staff Writer

Tina Allen, whose monumental sculptures of prominent African Americans through history -- including abolitionist Sojourner Truth and author Alex Haley -- fill public spaces across the United States, has died. She was 58.

Allen died Tuesday at Northridge Hospital Medical Center of complications from a heart attack, her former husband, Roger Allen, said. She had been a resident of North Hills.

Her first major commission, in 1986, set the course for her future. She made a 9-foot bronze sculpture of labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize a union for sleeping car porters in the 1920s, for a train station in Boston.

Over the next 22 years Allen created more than a dozen other sculptures of black activists to be displayed in public spaces. Whether her subjects were famous or not, her works were her way of “writing our history in bronze,” Allen said.

For every nationally known figure -- agricultural scientist George Washington Carver for the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis or Sojourner Truth for Memorial Park in Battle Creek, Mich., -- Allen created one of her remarkable likenesses of a prominent local leader.


“Tina felt an obligation to get the word out about people who make important contributions but aren’t household names,” said Eric Hanks, an art dealer who represented Allen at the M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica in the 1990s.

Several of her works were created for sites in Los Angeles. Her bust of Celes King III, a founder of the California Congress of Racial Equality, was unveiled at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in 2004.

A bas-relief of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Charles R. Drew was installed at King Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in 1998.

She also made smaller abstract sculptures and bronzes of Hollywood celebrities.

A number of her works are now in museums and corporate and private collections.

She had a special rapport with her realistic sculptures, each one capturing a strong personality. “I’m trying to infuse a soul into these objects,” Allen said of them in a 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel.

To begin a new work, she studied photographs and other likenesses of her subjects, interviewing their friends if possible, and talked to experts about them. Then she made a clay model.

“Tina said that once she got her hands into the clay, her subjects started talking to her,” her agent, Quentin Moses, said this week.

As she sculpted a likeness of Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave and helped to abolish slavery, “he told me he’s not happy,” Allen said. It shows in his face, which closely resembles a famous photograph. The finished piece was featured in a scene from “Akeelah and the Bee,” a 2006 movie about a girl in South Los Angeles who overcomes the odds and becomes a spelling bee champion.

“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,” Allen said in a 2003 interview with National Public Radio. “I like to think it’s useful pieces of art as opposed to just decorative.”

One of her most highly publicized works was a 13-foot bronze of author Alex Haley, whose 1976 book “Roots” inspired people around the world to trace their family history.

Allen portrayed Haley sitting with a book in one hand, reaching out with the other hand, as he did when he told stories, she discovered in her research.

She chose a seated pose for Haley because it brought him closer to people. “I want to see kids climb onto his lap and play hide-and-go-seek around his legs,” she said in a 1998 interview with the Knoxville News-Sentinel in Tennessee, where the work was installed in Haley Heritage Park in 1998.

Allen, who was born Tina Powell in Hempstead, N.Y., on Dec. 9, 1949, made her first breakthrough as a sculptor at 13 when she crafted a bust of Aristotle instead of the ashtray that was her art class assignment. “I just knew instinctively how to make faces,” Allen said in a 2002 interview with Essence magazine.

She had already tried her hand at musical instruments. Her father, Gordon “Specs” Powell, was a studio musician for CBS Records who played in “The Ed Sullivan Show” band.

“I had one trump card so I’ve been playing it,” she said of her choice to make art.

Her parents divorced when she was young, and she lived with her mother in Grenada for four years. While she was there she met the New York City-based sculptor William Zorach, who was on vacation. A few years later, when she moved to New York City with her mother, she met Zorach again. He became a mentor.

Allen graduated from the University of South Alabama with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1978. She also studied art at the New York School of Visual Arts, the Pratt Institute and the University of Venice in Italy.

Both of her marriages ended in divorce. She is survived by three children, Koryan, Josephine and Tara Allen.

Services are pending.