September 15 , 2005 – Vol. 41, No. 5

The artful legacy of Leon Brathwaite Sr.

Kay Bourne

Leon Brathwaite, Sr. has more of his work hanging in the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts than most artists — his craft was the frames for the works of Georgia O’Keefe, Man Ray, and Arthur Dove, among others that make up the MFA’s William H. Lane Collection of early 20th century painters.

Mr. Brathwaite leaves a legacy of not only frames that were works of art but of his own charming watercolors. This sensitive craftsman with a marvelous eye died Sept. 7 at Mt. Auburn Hospital from complications following surgery. He was 88.

His brother George Brathwaite, the only remaining sibling of the three girls and four boys who grew up in the house on Washburn Street in Cambridge, reminisces that Leon was a terrible tease. “He played tricks that got me the whippings,” said George, who now laughs at Leon’s pranks. Brathwaite’s parents were from Barbados; his father was a furniture mover, the mother a homemaker.

George said that Leon’s artistic side was evident early on. He graduated from Rindge Technical High School in 1936 where he studied cabinet making and woodworking. A course in art gave him his life’s desire. Leon went on to the now defunct Versper George School of Art and to support himself sold coal and ice in Cambridge – and later worked at the Boston Fish Pier and during World War II as a welder.

“His legacy will be his art,” his brother said, “he had a liking for it and a way with working with wood.”

Mr. Brathwaite’s framing business was located in four different places over the years. He began at Huntington Ave, moved to Newbury Street, then to Columbus Ave near the corner of Dartmouth where he also had a gallery. Spiraling rents finally forced him in 1985 to take his framing business home where he set up in the garage at the rear of his house.

Brathwaite framed a who’s who of African American artists from Romare Beardon to Benny Andrews, John Wilson, Alan Rohan Crite, Milton Derr, Charles White, Richard Yarde, Paul Goodnight, and countless others. E. Barry Gaither, curator and director of the Museum of Afro American Artists, often called on Mr. Brathwaite to frame the canvases for exhibit at the Roxbury museum. He framed work for the St. Botolph’s Club, the State House, Wendall St. Gallery, and many private collectors.

He enjoyed encouraging and inspiring young artists, one of them Ekua Holmes, who in later years included Leon’s paintings in an exhibit she staged at the Piano Craft Building gallery. He also exhibited in a gallery on Martha’s Vineyard.

Dapper, a great raconteur and very sociable, Mr. Brathwaite asked to celebrate what would be his last birthday Aug. 13 by taking a trip to Foxwoods where he’d never been. He delighted in the slot machines. “He said he won,” said A. Robert Phillips, a family friend who’d organized the excursion. Later the little party had birthday cake at the soul food restaurant there, Amy Ruth’s, where everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to him.

Mr. Brathwaite was married for 60 years to Evelyn Joseph, who died at age 80 in 1988. His wake and funeral were held at the church he’d been christened and confirmed in, St. James Episcopal Church in Somerville, Mon., Sept. 13. The evening before his brother masons of the Prince Hall Masons, Celestial Lodge #4 performed their rites; Leon was a 33-degree mason, according to his brother.

In addition to his brother George, Mr. Brathwaite leaves a son Leon II and his wife Brenda, and another son Aaron and his wife Karen, and other close family, including three grandchildren, one great grandchild, and many nieces and nephews. He was buried in Cambridge Cemetery.




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