He once painted a portrait of Ruth Ellis, last week’s Black History Month profile subject, and unless you happened to visit Ruthie in her downtown apartment, odds are you’ve never seen an original Foster. That sad truth aside, the fact remains that LeRoy Foster might just be the best artist you’ve never heard of.
As a child, LeRoy Foster could content himself for hours with a several sheets of paper and a handful of crayons. Born in Detroit in 1925, Foster was a mild-mannered child for the first dozen years or so of his life. But then something happened.
“I was nice up until I was 12,” he once recalled. “Then all hell broke loose. I was possessed by demons … and one way to exorcise the demons was to paint. Friends and I used to go to the art institute after school. It was a palace and we were dancers, and we would spin through the marble halls until the guards would stop us.”
Foster’s artistic gift was recognized early. He was the youngest member of the Pen and Palette Club when, at age 14, he won first prize in their 1939 exhibition. Foster attended Cass Technical High School, and through the help of two his teachers there he received a scholarship to attend the Society of Arts and Crafts, now known as the College for Creative Studies.
In the 1950s, Foster traveled abroad and continued his studies at L’Academie de la Grand Chaumeire in Paris and at London’s Heatherly School of Art. Eventually, Foster returned to the States and to Detroit, but carving out a living as a black artist in his hometown proved to be challenging. He taught classes at the Pen and Palette Club, American Black Artists Incorporated and Jon Lockard’s Studio. He eked out a living painting portraits of government officials and other notables including select friends such as Ruth Ellis, whose weekend parties he attended regularly. For a while he even taught part-time at Cass, but Foster possessed a free spirit common to many artists and had a hard time with deadlines and punching a time clock.
“An artist doesn’t need LSD,” he said. “The fantasies are always there. The true artist applies them in terms of personal values.”
Many of Foster’s major works were commissioned in Paris, but several of his murals remain on display around Detroit. The Douglass-Brown mural at the Frederick Douglass branch of the Detroit Public Library on Grand River depicts the meeting between the famous black abolitionist and John Brown, the white abolitionist, that took place in Detroit in 1859. Several strong teenagers are depicted against a background of the Renaissance Center in Renaissance City, which has hung in Cass Tech since 1979.
But by that time, it was becoming more than difficult for Foster to make ends meet. It was impossible. He lived in an old theatre on Livernois that he had converted into a studio amid countless pieces of canvas, unfinished carpentry, five cats and dozens of live plants. He earned $4.57 an hour as an artist in residence at an elementary school on the East Side.
Friends tried to commercialize Foster, mass-producing two religious pieces – one depicting Christ the other the Madonna and child – and selling them to local churches. But Foster remains staunchly critical of artists who tried to be overly commercial or trendy. He called it “selling out.”
“It hurts me to see that,” he said. “If selling yourself short is what it takes to succeed, I don’t want it.”
In his last years, Foster was on welfare. He suffered from leukemia and Hodgkin’s Disease and went for weekly dialysis until his death at age 67 in 1993. You can admire the largest amassed collections of Foster’s work at the Gallery LeRoy inside the J.T.J. Foundation and Gallery in Detroit. Expect to see an undercurrent of homoeroticism, which speaks to his sexual orientation, and also anger.
“There is a violent structure underneath my portraits that can disturb you,” said Foster. “Art absorbs the violence of the times. A girl gave me a compliment once. She said my pictures tired her out.”