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Like that of many African Americans, Walter Ellison’s life was shaped by the Great Migration, the massive movement of blacks from the rural South to the urban North after World War I. Originally from Eatonton, Georgia, he moved to Chicago in the 1920s; in the following decade, he attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was employed by the Illinois Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.
Many African American writers and artists, including Richard Wright and Jacob Lawrence, used trains as powerful metaphors. On one hand, they can symbolize movement, the future, and hope for prosperity. On the other, they can signify displacement, dispossession, and loss. Ellison’s Train Station depicts an energetic scene in which many travelers depart from a central terminal. The composition reflects how values in the 1930s prevented blacks and whites from mixing. Each of the painting’s three sections reveals the artist’s perceptions of the injustices associated with inequitable social conditions. On the left, white passengers board southbound trains for vacations, while, on the right, black passengers board northbound trains for destinations such as Chicago and Detroit, hopeful of being welcomed in cities where they can prosper. A sign above a doorway on the platform identifying the colored-only exit further underscores the dehumanizing conditions that African Americans had to endure at this time. In the center section, black porters help white passengers, but black travelers proceed unassisted.
The sharply exaggerated perspective creates a space that appears physically inaccessible, perhaps symbolizing remote destinations and unimaginable conditions at the end of the journey. By placing his initials on the suitcase that an old man in the right foreground tries to lift, Ellison inscribed his own experiences of racism and economic struggle into the work, creating an autobiographical account of his personal migration north.
MEDIUM: Oil on cardboard
ART FORM: Painting