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Chapter 5


FUTURE: 1974–1983

u  u  u

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)

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This manuscript was completed during the time of the great hurricane

Katrina-caused f lood in New Orleans on August 31 and the first week of

September 2005. While I watched television news covering the flooded city and its stranded citizens who were so disproportionately African American and poor,

John Biggers’s drawings came to my mind. In his early drawings he had depicted the struggle of the working poor with such empathy. It was the part of life that he had known the best. He had seen the exhaustion of a mother trying to shield her children from poverty and illness. He knew the desperation of the elderly without resources who could not care for themselves. The faces glimpsed on the flickering screen could have come from John Biggers’s sketchbook. He was well acquainted with poverty, racism, and injustice.

He spent the last half of his career infusing his art with optimism and hope.

He had a passion for art and believed that somehow his art could lift up his cherished people to the very best of life. As he came to accept and treasure his life’s journey as an African American pioneer, he developed powerful iconic images that resonated with many viewers. Television viewers of Katrina’s destruction agonized while watching so many families clinging together, desperate for help.

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CHAPTER FIVE: Developing and Integrating the Iconography, 1974–1983

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Developing and Integrating the

Iconography: 1974–1983

Fitting the Pieces Together

Chap te r Five


ohn Biggers once said, “I’m not a talker, I’m an artist. I express my ideas through my art. My thoughts just come out. They don’t follow any logical order.”1 While Biggers’s analysis may have been true, it was a bit of an understatement. John Biggers wrestled with complex ideas and philosophical inquiry throughout his life and he did enjoy talking about and sharing his thoughts.

He was now on a quest to integrate his understanding of African mythology and art with his life as a black Southern male of the mid-twentieth century. Out of that inquiry, he hoped to create a new form for his art that would express an integration of these two worlds. Piece by piece, Biggers began to create a metaphoric language that would speak to the human spirit of matters of importance: birth, life, love, family, hope, transformation, regeneration, and ascension.

But assembling this quilt of ideas did not come easily. Following the 1969 trip to Africa, Biggers became ill. He was unable to think or work creatively for several years after the trip. Guiding his art program took all his energy. In a strange and depressing episode on campus, Web of Life (1962) was carelessly damaged

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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.

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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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