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Tina Allen; created sculptures of black activists

Tina Allen's sculpture of A. Philip Randolph was unveiled at Boston's Back Bay Station, with Byron Rushing (left) and John Dukakis. Randolph organized a union for train porters. Tina Allen's sculpture of A. Philip Randolph was unveiled at Boston's Back Bay Station, with Byron Rushing (left) and John Dukakis. Randolph organized a union for train porters. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file 1988)
By Mary Rourke
Los Angeles Times / September 15, 2008
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LOS ANGELES - Tina Allen, whose monumental sculptures of prominent blacks in history, from abolitionist Sojourner Truth to author Alex Haley, fill public spaces across the United States, has died. She was 58.

Ms. Allen died Tuesday at Northridge Hospital Medical Center of complications from a heart attack, said her former husband, Roger Allen.

Her first major commission, in 1986, set the course for her future. She made a 9-foot-tall bronze sculpture of labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, for Back Bay Station in Boston.

Over the next 25 years Ms. Allen created more than a dozen other sculptures of black activists to be displayed in public spaces. Famous or not, they 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. - Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Crenshaw-Baldwin Hills Plaza in 2004. A double portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Charles Drew was installed at King Drew Medical 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 in museums and corporate and private collections.

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

To begin a work, she studied photographs and other likenesses of her subjects, interviewing their friends if possible. And 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," Ms. 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 co-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," Ms. 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-tall bronze of Haley, whose 1976 novel "Roots" inspired people around the world to trace their family history. Ms. Allen portrayed Haley sitting with a book in one hand, reaching out with the other, as he did when he told stories.

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.

Ms. Allen, who was born Tina Powell in Hempstead, N.Y., 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," Ms. Allen told Essence magazine in 2002.

Her parents divorced when she was young, and she lived with her mother in Grenada for four years. While there she met William Zorach, a sculptor 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.

Both of her marriages ended in divorce. She leaves three children, Koryan, Josephine, and Tara.

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