Arthello Beck, Jr., Dallas African-American artist, son of Arthello Beck, Sr., and Millie (Taylor) Beck, was born in Dallas on July 17, 1941. He was the first African American to own and operate an art gallery in Dallas.
By the age of seven, Arthello knew that he wanted to become an artist. His father expressed doubt that Arthello would be able to make a living as an artist and commented, “What? You’ll starve to death, boy.” Arthello Beck graduated from Dallas’s Lincoln High School, where he received his only art training; beyond that, he was self-taught. He had a speech impediment, and he tended to express himself more through his art than through speech, especially as a very young man. Beck used the main Dallas Public Library as a way to learn more about art. He once said, “I used to spend hours in the library but I never read a book. I may have missed a lot but I only read the pictures.” He began to seriously hone his artistic skills at the age of twenty-one; that was the year that he taught himself to use oil paints.
Beck worked at a series of jobs before he was able to devote himself to art. He made deliveries, and between delivery trips, he often would visit the Dallas Public Library. He worked for department stores as a clerk and as a janitor, and he was employed by the U.S. Postal Service. He worked as a driver, taking patients to and from the Dallas County Mental Health and Retardation Center, where he also assisted the staff therapists with a crafts program.
Arthello married Mae Charles Johnson in Dallas on March 1, 1969, when he was twenty-seven. They lived in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas and had two children—a son, Hodari Amin, and a daughter, Mashariki. Mae had a government job at one point. She also operated a daycare center in Dallas. Arthello Beck was a Democrat and a member of the United Methodist Church.
Beck opened an art gallery in Oak Cliff about 1973, where, along with his own paintings, he displayed paintings and sculptures by other artists, especially black artists from the Dallas area. He owned the gallery for more than thirty years.
In 1988 he was one of four winners of an art contest in which the winning paintings were reproduced on billboards. Beck’s painting showed colorful homemade quilts drying on a clothesline. The painting, writ large, was reproduced on billboards throughout the Dallas area sequentially for a year and was available for a quick viewing by as many as 400,000 motorists per day. Beck relished the tremendous amount of exposure for one of his paintings.
Beck’s media included oil, watercolor, charcoal, pencil, and pen-and-ink. He used a camera in lieu of a sketch pad to capture the various angles and views of a particular setting. His work appeared in many art shows for decades in Dallas and elsewhere. Arthello Beck’s painting of Jesus being baptized by John was done for the Crest-Moore King Memorial United Methodist Church; in it, both Jesus and John are presented as black men. Beck’s artwork was on display in art galleries, museums, churches, colleges, universities, community centers, the Dallas City Hall’s Great Court, the State Fair of Texas, and at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. His work was also exhibited at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1975 Beck donated several of his paintings to the Seagoville Federal Correctional Institute.
Considered by many to be one of the leading artists of the Southwest, Beck traveled to Central America, South America, West Africa, England, China, Egypt, Turkey, and the Caribbean. In 1985 Texas Governor Mark White appointed Beck as a Goodwill Ambassador for the State of Texas. In the summer of 1993 Arthello and his wife, along with about eighteen other Texans, participated in a cultural and trade mission to Ghana. Beck once told a reporter, “I do believe an artist has to see things. An artist has to travel.”
Dallas Cowboys football star Calvin Hill acquired an impressive art collection, and his son, NBA player Grant Hill, followed in his father’s footsteps both in art collecting and in professional athletics. Beck’s iconic painting Confrontation (1969) was the very first painting that Calvin Hill acquired; that painting was conspicuously present in the Hill home during Grant’s childhood and had a positive influence on him. Grant Hill said of Beck’s Confrontation, “I grew up with this painting, and just as my father is attached to it because it reflects the historic struggle of the black male, so am I.” Eventually Calvin Hill gave the Beck painting to his son Grant. An article in the San Antonio Express-News described the work, “A key painting, a gift from father to son, is Arthello Beck Jr.’s ‘Confrontation’ (1969), a violent image of a black man struggling to escape from two men holding him back.”
In 1978 the Hampton-Illinois branch of the Dallas Public Library held a reception honoring Beck. His name was included in a monument recognizing notable South Dallas citizens that was dedicated in Opportunity Park in February 2009. The art gallery in the South Dallas Cultural Center was named for Arthello Beck. Beck taught some non-credit art courses at the Dallas County Community College’s Mountain View Campus. He was appointed a member of the Dallas City Hall Arts Committee. Beck was a member of the National Conference of Artists and the Southwest Alliance of African American Artists. He helped found the Southwest Black Artists Guild.
Arthello Beck, Jr., died of an apparent heart attack on November 5, 2004, at the age of sixty-three, in Tyler, Texas, while on a trip to Caddo Lake. Ironically, Beck posthumously achieved one of his fondest dreams the month following his death, when some of his artwork was displayed (as part of the Grant Hill collection) from December 19, 2004, through April 17, 2005, at the Dallas Museum of Art. The Hill collection went on to tour museums throughout the United States. On May 24, 2005, the Texas House of Representatives honored Arthello Beck, Jr., with House Resolution No. 1760. Marilyn Clark, the founder and curator of Black Cinematheque Dallas, said of Beck: “He was not a big talker, but more of a quiet warrior using his art and volunteer time to speak to the community and to our world. He used his art to bring about a higher level of consciousness in the community, for he understood the purpose of art was to tell the truth.” A longtime friend named Artist Thornton said, “He was a gentle giant and very, very humble.”