Raymond Steth, 79; Philadelphia Artist Won Wide Acclaim

Posted: February 12, 1997

Raymond Steth, 79, of West Philadelphia, an artist whose lithographs are in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution, died of cancer Thursday at Graduate Hospital.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, Mr. Steth worked in the graphics division of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, which operated community art centers for painters, sculptors and graphic artists.

The program offered financial subsidies and creative freedom, he told an Inquirer reporter in 1991.

``We carved out our own thing. Nobody cared about what you said, the statement that you made,'' he recalled, as long as it was done professionally.

He was a radical in those days, a time when patriotism and social criticism were not thought to be incompatible, he said in that interview. It was possible then, he said, to be ``protesting about the black condition but . . . loving the country you live in because of the Constitution.''

One of the works he did then, later exhibited at the Free Library, was a piece he called protest art. In it, an elderly black man pushed a cart filled with goods that included two small American flags.

He could have named the work I Am an American Also, he said.

Six of Mr. Steth's lithographs from the WPA days were included in a 1994 exhibition, ``Alone in a Crowd,'' a collection of prints done by African American artists during the 1930s and 1940s, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In an Inquirer review of that exhibit, Mr. Steth's work was praised for conveying a range of emotions, from the pleasures of rural life to the depths of despair. Some of his prints recall compositions of Mexican painter Diego Rivera's murals, the review said.

The titles of the works suggest his themes: Southern Barbecue showed the delights of rural life; Evolution of Swing, African Americans' contributions to culture; Heaven on a Mule, a poignant image taken from a folk tale showing a poor black family standing on a hill wearing cloth wings in the hope of being taken to heaven; and Despair, a woman kneeling at a rickety bed.

After leaving the WPA, Mr. Steth co-founded and directed the now-defunct Philographic School of Art, an independent printmaking and graphics workshop, and was an assistant teacher at Philadelphia College of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

He also helped develop the Department of Graphic Arts and Printmaking at Morgan State College in Baltimore.

In the 1970s, Mr. Steth was a caterer, worked in the Mayor's Office of Community Development, and was co-owner with the late Goldie Watson of the Adelphi Ballroom on North 52d Street.

Mr. Steth was born in Philadelphia, graduated from Central High School and studied art at Philadelphia College of Art and the Barnes Foundation. He was guest curator of the Philadelphia Print Club in 1942 and 1943.

His family name was Ryles, but he changed it at some point in his life, said his friend of 16 years, Russe Jackson. She said the name Steth reminded him of the Dutch masters.

He is survived by sons Ronald G. Ryles and Harvey R. Ryles; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Services were pending.

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