Born and raised in Philadelphia, Charles Searles attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He had a keen interest in African art, and when he was awarded the prestigious Cresson Traveling Scholarship at graduation, he used it to visit Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, and other countries of West Africa. Upon returning to Philadelphia, he became an instructor at the Ile-Ife Black Humanitarian Center. He found there a like-minded community and joined his friend Barbara Bullock in developing the center’s visual art program. He also played drums for the dance programs.
Searles described his experiences in Africa as providing “an overriding sense of belonging. . . . It felt like home.” He found the contemporary art of the Osogbo School in Nigeria, of which Twins Seven-Seven was a leading figure, to be a significant stylistic influence, and Nigerian culture transformed the character and flavor of his work. Searles’s early paintings reflect his impressions from these travels, incorporating the lyrical movements, vivid colors, and cacophony of patterns in which he immersed himself. His later work would become more and more abstract, developing into carved and painted wooden forms that retained only the movement, rhythms, and palette that had become hallmarks of his Africa-inspired work.
After his tenure at Ile-Ife, Searles established a studio in New York, and taught at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) and a number of other art academies. He remained a prolific artist until his death in 2004