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Walls That Speak

The Murals of John Thomas Biggers

Olive Jensen Theisen

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv

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PREFACE: The Murals of John Thomas Biggers

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pp. v

The hope of finding a painting by a “famous artist” in some gloomy closet sends many a junk store enthusiast digging through piles of canvases in dusty places. One Saturday morning I found myself in a storeroom pushing aside map stands, overhead projectors and other left-over classroom equipment in order to get a look...

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PREFACE: Walls That Speak

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pp. vii-viii

The need for a revised edition of The Murals of John Thomas Biggers became apparent even before the first edition had been formally introduced. By that time John Biggers wasn’t quite ready to end his mural career. In 1995 he was already at work on a plan for a community mural in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when invited...

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pp. 1-7

John Biggers spoke truth though his art for sixty years. Despite his death in 2001, his rich complex images continue to delight the eye, puzzle the mind, and capture the imagination. Enigmatic as some of his works are, they still burst with life and vigor. His influence upon generations of art students, especially young...

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pp. 8-26

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...

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pp. 27-50

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...

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pp. 51-61

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....

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pp. 62-69

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...

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pp. 70-85

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...

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pp. 86-105

After his early retirement from Texas Southern University in 1983, John Biggers’s production was astounding. In addition to his painting and drawings, he participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions and traveled to Europe, South America, and Africa. In the years between 1987 and 1992, he completed two...

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pp. 106-116

The years 1994 to 1997 were exciting but tiring ones for John and Hazel Biggers. Upon completion of the murals at Hampton University and Winston- Salem State University, Biggers experienced some serious health problems caused by diabetes and exhaustion. They planned to rest for a good long time...

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pp. 117-118

Each mural that John Biggers completed provided him an opportunity to further develop his story of the African American in the context of the universe. Themes of the pre-Africa, pre-1960 murals dealt with the life and history of ordinary and extraordinary persons of the segregated world into which John Biggers was born...

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pp. 119

There are so many individuals to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for contributions in the production of this book. Had it not been for the initial strong encouragement of Dr. D. Jack Davis, Professor of Art and Director of the North Texas Institute for Educators in the Visual Arts, and the perceptive conversations...


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pp. 123-130


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pp. 131


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pp. 133-137

E-ISBN-13: 9781574413502
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574412895

Page Count: 152
Illustrations: 47 color and 38 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2010

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Subject Headings

  • Biggers, John Thomas, 1924-2001.
  • African American artists -- Biography.
  • African American mural painting and decoration -- 20th century.
  • Biggers, John Thomas, 1924-2001 -- Themes, motives.
  • African American art -- African influences.
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