December 5, 2005
The craft of mural painting owes itself immeasurably to the work of John Thomas Biggers. While his predecessors, such as Hale Woodruff, Aaron Douglas, and Charles White, have left indelible marks on the tradition, Biggers augmented the craft as a pioneering muralist and as an educator. At the age of twenty-five he co-founded the art department at Texas Southern University where he championed African and African American aesthetics and where he taught many young art students the techniques of mural painting at a time when few art departments focused on black art. As noted in an article by Frank H. Wardlaw, listed in Black Leaders: Texans for Their Times, in his own work Biggers viewed art “not primarily as an individual expression of talent but as a responsibility to reflect the spirit and style of the Negro people.”
The impetus for genius is often difficult to determine. For Biggers, however, inspiration stemmed from his rich childhood in Gastonia, North Carolina. The youngest of seven children, John and his siblings all shared their father’s gift of drawing. All of the Biggers children believed in hard work and had a passion for reading. When the children were not tending to the family farm, they were reading for at least two hours a day, a mandate strictly enforced by their parents. The strict parents sparked their children with creative energy. Evidence of this creativity lies in the fact that the children meticulously recreated their town of Gastonia out of clay under their house each year when John was a boy.
Paul Biggers, John’s father, worked incessantly in spite of the fact that one of his legs was amputated as a result of a childhood accident. For the rest of his life, Paul Biggers refused a peg leg or prosthetic, walking with the support of a crutch. He never considered himself cripple, holding jobs as a carpenter, farmer, and shoemaker after he graduated high school. While working, he attended Livingston College in the summers, where he earned certificates to teach and preach. From then on he taught full-time at multiple schools and served as an itinerant preacher. Because he never accepted offerings for preaching, he also toiled for months at a time in the West Virginia coal mines to supplement his meager income. Although he died when John was thirteen, when speaking of his father, John acknowledged in an interview to Frank H. Wardlaw, “he was one of the most important influences in my life.”
John’s mother, Cora Fingers Biggers, was a Puritan, who demanded that her children adhere to its rigid morals. She supported her husband’s theological endeavors while she tended the house. When her husband died, she worked as a domestic in other people’s homes. John Biggers evoked the image of his mother as a hardworking domestic in his famous mural “The Contribution of Negro Women to American Life,” completed in 1953.
At Highland Elementary School in Gastonia, Biggers was formally introduced to drawing by his second grade teacher who devoted a part of her daily instruction to drawing different species of birds. By the end of the year, deposited in his memory were the images of more than a hundred different species of birds, all of which he could draw.
While Biggers relished his gift as a young boy, he found few means of cultivating it when he entered high school in 1937. At Lincoln Academy in King’s Mountain, North Carolina, the school in which both of his parents attended and the place where they met, he worked as a plumber in the boiler room and as a janitor in the carpentry shop. In the carpentry shop, he learned cabinetmaking and showed some artistic talent. Although he generally enjoyed his stay at Lincoln, had it not been for the school’s president, Henry C. McDowell, the school’s influence may have done him a grand disservice.
McDowell, a former missionary who had lived in Angola for twenty years, wanted to dispel negative images about Africa. Biggers gained a broader perspective about humanity, a perspective he would later refine on his own travels to Africa. McDowell also encouraged John to pursue a degree at Hampton Institute in Virginia, now Hampton University.
At Hampton, Biggers met his most influential teacher, Viktor Lowenfeld. An Austrian Jew who had transferred to Hampton from Harvard because he desired to work with Negro students, Lowenfeld created a desire for an art program at Hampton with a simple solicitation posted on a bulletin board for a non-credit art class offered at night. The 800 responses he received prompted the university to offer the class the following year. As a distinguished painter and teacher himself, Lowenfeld contributed to modern art education with his book Creative and Mental Growth. As noted by Olive Jensen Theisen, in her exhaustive work The Murals of John Thomas Biggers: American Muralist, African American Artist, Lowenfeld’s approach to art “encouraged his students to explore the imagery of their own cultures. By placing value in the legends, art, and music of Africa, Lowenfeld opened the doors to a previously hidden treasure of symbols and culture which would become increasingly visible in John Biggers’ works as he refined his artistic style.”
After he served two and a half years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Biggers continued his studies as a visual arts specialist, creating models of machinery and working under his ceramics teacher at Hampton, Joe Gillard, who was also serving in the navy. Because of their work together, Biggers saw no decline in his abilities once he returned to Hampton.
Upon his return to Hampton in 1945, Biggers worked with Charles White, a visiting artist-in-residence. While at Hampton, White created his “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy,” which portrays the struggles of heroic African American figures, including Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, Lead Belly, and Marian Anderson. The relationship with White inspired some of the later works Biggers created.
During this period Biggers also met his future wife Hazel Hayes. But in 1946 Viktor Lowenfeld decided to leave Hampton for Pennsylvania State University; he encouraged Biggers to transfer with him. Faced with a dilemma, Biggers decided to leave Hazel to finish her studies at Hampton while he pursued his B.A., M.A., and Ed.D. in art education at Pennsylvania State University under Lowenfeld. In 1948, both his B.A. and M.A. degrees were conferred, and the two were married.
Pioneers Instruction in Mural Painting
In 1949 Biggers and his wife moved to Houston where he accepted a position to organize a department of art at Texas Southern University. Although this was a formidable challenge, Biggers reveled in the fact that he would be exposed to the influence of Diego Rivera, José Oroozco, and David Siquieros in a city rich with Mexican art. What he found, however, was a “wasteland”. He further claimed that there was “no culture as far as visual arts and blacks were concerned” in the community of Houston, as noted in Elton Fax’s Black Artists of the New Generation.
The administration’s expectations of the new art department were equally disheartening. Others assumed the program would be a quasi-printing press, and he received innumerable solicitations for flyers and posters. He also received commissions to depict the heads of the faculty and administration, all of which he refused.
To embark upon the arduous task of creating an art department, Biggers enlisted one of his former classmates at Hampton, Joseph Mack, to teach alongside him that first year. The following year, Carroll Simms, a native of Arkansas and a graduate of Cranbrook Art Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, joined the two, and together they sought to deliver art to the community in the form of a mural painting program, a program which was to become a defining element of the department.
In Houston, they found ready support from a few teachers who were teaching art in the public school system. These women, Willie Lee Thomas, Laura Sands, and Fannie Holman, were staunch supporters of the new department at Texas Southern University and shared Biggers’s desire to promote art in the community.
The immediate effect of the mural painting program was the production of a host of murals painted by Biggers and Mack in public institutions around the city, in nursing homes, YMCAs, high schools, and libraries. Simms, a sculptor and ceramist, also brought art to the community in the forms of fountains, ceramic murals, and sculptures.
While Biggers’s work received numerous awards during this period, notably from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, his chief achievement came indirectly through the work of his students. From his approach which “focused upon an appreciation of the black American’s southern roots, his traditions, and his contributions to America’s development from slavery to the 1960s,” noted by Elton C. Fax in Black Artists of the New Generation, his teaching encouraged students to look to their heritage for inspiration, an approach which eventually buoyed many of them headlong into the black arts movement. As a credit to his teachings, along with that of his colleagues, housed on the campus of Texas Southern University are hundreds of examples of unrivaled student works: paintings, ceramics, sculptures, weavings, drawings, prints, and murals, some of which were to be profiled in the book, co-authored by Simms, Black Art in Houston: The Texas Southern University Experience. Of these student productions, Biggers was especially proud of the greatness achieved by his former pupils Kermit Oliver, Calvin Hubbard, Harry Vital, Leon Renfro, Harvey Johnson, and Trudell Mims Oliver.
Travels to Africa
In 1957 John and Hazel Biggers traveled to West Africa, visiting Ghana, Dahomey, Nigeria, and Togo under a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization fellowship. The purpose of the six-month trip was to study and depict, according to Biggers as told to Alvia J. Wardlaw in The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room, “what was intrinsically African.”In his West African travels, Biggers also sought to convey the interconnectedness among Africans, particularly those who lived in the coastal communities, those who lived in the inner forest regions, and those who lived in the expanses of the open plateaus. The result of his study was the publication of Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa, a collection of eighty-nine conte crayon drawings accompanied by writings detailing his discoveries. When asked by Frank H. Wardlaw about his trip, he remarked: “it was the greatest experience of my life.”
In 1969, amidst the tumultuous, racially motivated violence of the 1960s, which had surfaced on the campus of Texas Southern University in 1966 with the death of a Houston policeman and the wounding of three students, John and Hazel Biggers escaped to Africa for another expedition courtesy of a grant from the Danforth Foundation. This time the couple traveled to East Africa, seeking revitalization from further self-discoveries like those they had experienced on their first trip to Africa. While they gained more invaluable images of African humanity, John Biggers returned to Houston suffering from tuberculosis. Upon his return, he battled a string of illnesses for the next four years. During this time Biggers produced only one drawing.
Biggers was fascinated with both African and African American images. His work asserts the importance and universality of African and African American humanity. His art affirms its subjects and provides a source of inspiration and purpose for his race and his African ancestors.
His first major work, “The Contribution of Negro Women to American Life,” which was inspired by the works of Diego Rivera and by Charles White’s mural, “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy,” was completed in 1953 as his doctoral dissertation at Pennsylvania State University. It affirms the important roles of African American matriarchs. The mural presents images of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth protecting scores of children and leading them to freedom. The work was awarded the Purchase Prize at the National Negro Artist Expedition in Atlanta in 1953. The mural was later moved to the Blue Triangle YWCA in Houston, a building serving black women of all ages.
After his first trip to Africa, Biggers published Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa. This collection of drawings and writings depicts his experiences in West Africa and African life he saw there. Published in 1962, the book surfaced on the cusp of the civil rights movement and was appreciated in the circles that sought to replace Euro-centrism with an African-centered way of thinking. Thus, it was viewed as an essential companion to black consciousness for it was both instructive and inspiring. It was awarded the Dallas Museum Award: Best Texas Book Design in 1962.
Before the publication of Black Art in Houston: The Texas Southern University Experience in 1978, the administration’s haphazard destruction of murals produced by his students almost prompted Biggers to resign. In his eyes, it was a blatant display of disrespect for his contributions to the university. Luckily, he and Carroll Simms, who co-authored the book, photographed many of those murals that were included in the book. Five years after its publication, Biggers retired from his post at Texas Southern University.
After his retirement, Biggers received many life achievement awards. They include: the Creativity Award from the Texas Arts Alliance and Texas Commission on the Arts awarded in 1983; and the Achievement Award from the Metropolitan Arts Foundation and the Texas Artist of the Year from the Art League of Houston, both awarded in 1988. He also received an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from Hampton University in 1990. A great tribute to his work, however, was the opening of “The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room” at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, curated by Alvia J. Wardlaw. Featuring more than 125 works, which spanned his complete fifty-year career, the show also included works he completed after his retirement. The traveling show was also exhibited at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh; the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut; the Hampton University Art Museum in Hampton, Virginia; and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.
Working with his nephew, James Biggers, and professor Harvey Johnson, Biggers continued to paint murals throughout the 1990s. At Winston-Salem University in Virginia and at Hampton University from 1990 to 1992 he painted “House of the Turtle,” “Tree House,” “Origins,” and “Ascensions.” From 1997 to 1999, Biggers painted his final murals in Houston, “Salt Marsh” in 1998 and “Nubia: The Origins of Business and Commerce” in 1999. On January 25, 2001, after struggling with diabetes, John Biggers died in Houston, Texas.
Fax, Elton C. Black Artists of the New Generation. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1977.
Otfinoski, Steven. African Americans in the Visual Arts New York: Facts On File, 2003.
Theisen, Olive Jensen. The Murals of John Thomas Biggers: American Muralist, African American Artist. Hampton, Va.: Hampton University Press, 1999.
Wardlaw, Alvia J., ed. The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.
Wardlaw, Frank. H. “John Biggers: Artist.” In Black Leaders: Texans for Their Times. Eds. Alwyn Barr and Robert A. Calvert. Austin, Tex.: Texas State Historical Association, 1981.
The work of John T. Biggers is in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art; Atlanta University Museum; Hampton University Museum; Howard University; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Lubbock Museum; Texas Southern University; and numerous private collections.