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Walls That Speak

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John Thomas Biggers (1924-2001) was one of the most significant African American artists of the twentieth century. He was known for his murals, but also for his drawings, paintings, and lithographs, and was honored by a major traveling retrospective exhibition from 1995 to 1997. He created archetypal imagery that spoke positively to the rich and varied ethnic heritage of African Americans, long before the Civil Rights era drew attention to their African cultural roots. His influence upon other artists was profound, both for the power of his art and as professor and elder statesman to younger generations. Olive Jensen Theisen's long-time commitment to the art of John Biggers resulted from the serendipitous discovery of an early Biggers mural in a school storeroom in the mid-1980s. Theisen immediately recognized the artist, the work, and its significance. She then set about returning The History of Negro Education in Morris County, Texas, to a place of honor and found herself becoming a friend and recorder of John Biggers's stories and experiences relating to the creation of his other murals too, including Family Unity at Texas Southern University. Containing more than eighty color and black-and-white illustrations, Walls That Speak is a richly illustrated update of an earlier edition published in 1996. The artist completed new murals between its publication and his death in 2001. In addition to the inclusion of the new murals, Theisen has added a chapter on Biggers's African art collection. The only work exclusively dedicated to his murals, this book will appeal to all those interested in murals or African American art.

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CHAPTER 1. EARLY YEARS: 1924–1949

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CHAPTER 1

EARLY YEARS: 1924–1949

Mural painting is architectural. It’s part of the building. One of the marvelous things about the medium is that you have to go to the building to paint, if it’s really done right. Murals that can be painted directly on the walls, to me, are the greatest expression… To me it’s a medium in which to express the community…

If you do the painting for people, and you feel that you are part of the culture, that is the greatest thing that can happen to you. Everyone in the community becomes a part of that mural.

John Thomas Biggers, quoted in Felts and Moon,

“Artists Series: An Interview with John Biggers”

u  u  u 

Gastonia, North Carolina, 1924–1941

John Thomas Biggers was born on April 13, 1924, the youngest of the seven children of Paul and Cora Biggers. The family lived in the Negro area of Gastonia,

North Carolina, a mill town in the heart of the segregated South, where Paul

Biggers worked as a teacher, preacher, cobbler, blacksmith, and farmer.

Although poor in worldly goods, Paul and Cora Biggers created a rich and loving home life that placed high value on religion, education, and creative endeavors. John Biggers recalled whole summers “building a complete city from clay soil, sticks, rocks and moss in a cool space under our house.”1 With great pleasure, he described vivid childhood memories of his mother and grandmother quilting, his brothers drawing pictures from the Bible and magazines, and his father studying quietly. “I had a marvelous father. He was very stern, hard man, because he’d come out of a very hard way of life, but there was a wonderful relationship between him and Mama. Mama was the boss of many things but he was the source behind the throne.”2

 

CHAPTER 2. TRANSITION: 1949–1957

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CHAPTER 2

TRANSITION: 1949–1957

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Houston, 1949–1957

I went to Greenwich Village very early and found I didn’t have anything in common with the people there… I felt that if I had anything to say, I would have to say it in the South. I wanted to come where I felt the black people’s roots really are—and they are in the South.

—John Thomas Biggers, quoted in Felts and Moon,

“Artist Series: An Interview with John Biggers”

Fig. 2.1

Artist at Texas

Southern University,

1950

John Biggers returned to his roots in the South in 1949, when he agreed to come to Houston from Pennsylvania State University to establish an art department at

Texas State College for Negroes. (The college became Texas Southern University in 1951.) Dr. R. O’Hara Lanier, the president of Texas Southern, was a Hampton

Institute alumnus who was already familiar with Biggers’s work. Through the suggestion of Susan McAshan, a prominent patron of the arts in Houston, Lanier offered Biggers the position at the college. As Biggers remembered: “While I was still at Penn State, Jim Dorsey, the dean of the division of fine arts at Texas Southern, called from Texas and said they’d like to have something of mine for the opening ceremony at the new Julius C. Hester

 

CHAPTER 3. BRIDGING PAST AND PRESENT:Africa and after, 1957–1974

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Chapter 3

Bridging Past and Present:

Africa and After, 1957–1974

The journey to Africa was the most significant of my life’s experiences. Living intimately with the African and understanding something of his problems enabled me to better understand my own. Thus strengthened, I gained a new confidence for the future.

—John Biggers, Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa

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West Africa, July 1957–December 1957

In July of 1957, John Biggers left America with his wife, Hazel, for six months of study in West Africa, funded by a UNESCO grant. The artist kept a careful record of his trip in words, drawings, and photographs, which he later incorporated into a book, Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa, first published in 1962.

In Ananse, he wrote of his thoughts in flight, as his plane approached the coast of Africa: “As an American Negro, my lifelong desire had been to bridge the gap between African and American culture. When I was an art student …Viktor

Lowenfeld taught us something about the noble meaning of African sculpture.”

 

CHAPTER 4. INFLUENCES: African art and mythology, 1957–2001

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CHAPTER 4:

Influences: African art and mythology, 1957–2001

John Biggers’s trip to Africa transformed his art in unimaginable ways. Many knew of Biggers’s earlier work and had categorized him as a regional painter who painted images of suffering people. As it turns out, that was only half the story. In this chapter we will talk about some factors that influenced him on his pioneering journey into the creation of new images and ideas. (fig. 4.1)

Following the 1996 publication of The Murals of John Thomas Biggers, Biggers gave me a little paperback book and suggested that I should read it sometime. I wasn’t familiar with the author and had much else to do, so that book sat untouched in my bookcase for over ten years. But recently, as I was looking for answers to some questions I still had about John Biggers’s work, I picked up Echoes of the Old

Darkland and leafed through it. As I read, I found glimpses of ideas that Biggers had embedded in his murals. I returned to that little paperback many times to study some of the images in later murals. And I did understand one thing: Biggers had found a source for his “great heroic images.” (See Chapter 5)

 

CHAPTER 5. INTEGRATING PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE: 1974–1983

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Chapter 5

INTEGRATING PAST, PRESENT,

FUTURE: 1974–1983

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Houston, Texas

How does one introduce the positive African

American image? One has to like oneself— one can reject the old images, but without a new image, one is lost, in chaos.

— John Biggers, telephone interview with author, Houston, July 29, 1993.

During a nearly decade-long hiatus from mural painting, John Biggers continued to draw, paint, teach, and build the art department at Texas

Southern University. Most significantly, he continued his artistic struggle to integrate African,

European, and Regionalist influences into his own visual language.

Throughout his career, one of Biggers’s goals had been to create heroic visual images—archetypes—that would provide a sense of identification for people of African descent. (fig.

5.1) Biggers noted that his mentor at Hampton

Institute, Viktor Lowenfeld, had studied with psychologist Carl Jung, and had infused his teaching with Jungian archetypal concepts. (In a primer of

Jungian Psychology, an archetype is defined as “an original model after which other things are patterned, such as birth ... hero … earth mother … trees, the sun, the moon … Archetypes are universal.” 1)

 

CHAPTER 6. MATURE YEARS: 1983–1993

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mature years: 1983–1993

Fig. 6.2

Song of the Drinking

Gourds, 1987.

Exterior-quality acrylic on prepared plaster over concrete.

360 x 480 in. Tom

Bass Regional Park

Craft House, Harris

County, Texas

North Carolina and two at his alma mater, Hampton University in Virginia. In all of his work, he continued to develop universal symbols that transcended regional and ethnic boundaries, affirming the common humanity of all people. This may be the enduring legacy of John Biggers’s art.

Song of the Drinking Gourds

Song of the Drinking Gourds (fig. 6.1) is another outdoor mural, painted on the main exterior wall of the Senior Citizen Craft House in Tom Bass Regional Park outside of Houston. The building, designed by James Marshall, is set on a grassy knoll so that the mural can easily be seen from many points in the park. It has the effect of a large quilt hanging in the open air.1

Tom Bass was a Harris County commissioner who brought a sense of humanism to politics in the county. The park was named in his honor, a sign of the high regard people had for him. It was Mr. Bass who had suggested me earlier for the Adair mural.

 

CHAPTER 7. THE LAST YEARS: 1994–2001

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CHAPTER 7

The Last Years: 1994–2001

I think we have to show the human condition and what happens to it. To me that is what art is all about—showing the spirit of man struggling above the mundane, above the material, above suffering. This is the whole story of art.

— John Biggers, quoted in Felts and Moon,

“An Interview with John Biggers”

The years 1994 to 1997 were exciting but tiring ones for John and Hazel

Biggers. Upon completion of the murals at Hampton University and WinstonSalem State University, Biggers experienced some serious health problems caused by diabetes and exhaustion. They planned to rest for a good long time in their Houston home.

Celebration of Life

In late 1993, Biggers had been approached by a group of artists from

Minneapolis, Minnesota, led by Ta’Coumba Aitkin, Seitu Jones, and Patricia

Phillips, who asked him to design a mural that they would paint collaboratively. The mural was to be painted on concrete sound barrier walls 16 feet high and 160 feet long alongside a major highway. Biggers was intrigued. To work with a community of artists as Diego Rivera had done long ago had always been his dream. John Biggers knew that he could not personally oversee the project but he could design a series of panels for them. He accepted the project and planned that the mural should tell the story of creation through his selected African symbols. After phone discussion and various drawings,

 

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