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A Life on Paper

The Drawings and Lithographs of John Thomas Biggers

Olive Jensen Theisen

Publication Year: 2006

John Thomas Biggers (1924–2001) was a major African American artist who inspired countless others through his teaching, murals, paintings, and drawings. After receiving conventional art training at Hampton Institute and Pennsylvania State, he had his personal and artistic breakthrough in 1957 when he spent six months in the newly independent country of Ghana. From this time forward, he integrated African abstract elements with his rural Southern images to create a personal iconography. His new approach made him famous, as his personal discovery of African heritage fit in well with the growing U.S. civil rights movement. He is best known for his murals at Hampton University, Winston-Salem University, and Texas Southern, but the drawings and lithographs that lie behind the murals have received scant attention—until now. Theisen interviewed Dr. Biggers during the last thirteen years of his life, and was welcomed into his studio innumerable times. Together, they selected representative works for this volume, some of which have not been previously published for a general audience. After his death in 2001, his widow continued to work closely with Theisen, resulting in a book that is intimate and informative for both the scholar and the student.

Published by: University of North Texas Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

John Biggers spent many hours tossing about ideas on drawing, art, and life while Hazel Biggers listened, cooked, and interjected her insightful comments. I sat at the dining table with tape recorder, pen, and yellow pad, with questions in mind. I am so thankful for this friendship that grew from a serendipitous event, led into a book on his murals and now into this book. Because of Dr. Biggers’s illness and death in 2001, I had stopped working on the project and put ...

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CHAPTER ONE: An Introduction

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pp. 1-6

These women are life size, with powerful hands and feet, not delicate beauty queens. An irate female voice interrupts the quiet concentration of the artist. “Come down, young man. Get down from the wall and stop this flagrant disrespect immediately. The image of the slave and especially Harriet Tubman disgrace Negro womanhood.” It takes a week or so of explanation and discussion before YWCA officials are able to convince the vociferous critics that the artist’s depiction of the ...

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CHAPTER TWO: Early Years and Education, 1924–1949

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pp. 7-30

Growing up as a black child in a racially segregated time in the southern half of the United States deeply influenced his view of the world. Biggers’s drawings are filled with references to aspects of life that are far removed from our current preoccupation with technology and political and global matters. Yet these drawings speak so strongly of the human condition that they cannot be forgotten. The early drawings of John Biggers centered on family and community in the ...

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CHAPTER THREE: Building in Houston and Texas Southern University, 1949–1957

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pp. 31-54

In 1949 Texas was still a segregated state with its own version of Jim Crow laws. Biggers had already begun to establish a reputation as a promising young artist, and some questioned the wisdom of accepting a position at a segregated school. Many in the black community believed that supporting such an institution would only perpetuate an untenable situation. Even John and Hazel’s landlord, who had agreed to provide rooms for the young couple, was outraged. “How could you do it, John?” asked his angry landlord.1 ...

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CHAPTER FOUR: Africa and Post-Africa, 1957–1974

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pp. 55-76

The drawings that have been selected for the past three chapters have been expressionistic, emotional, and have come from inner memory as much as a reporter’s observations. Throughout the first several decades of his career, Biggers’s images were deep and somber impressions of the downtrodden, tragic expressions of the human condition. When asked about this characteristic feature of his early work, Biggers explained that he felt that it was absolutely necessary to show his feelings about what happens ...

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

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pp. 75-88

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 ...

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CHAPTER SIX: Mature Years, 1984–2001

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pp. 100-141

Freed from the responsibility of the academic world, Biggers was able to work in his studio, travel, research his expanding ideas, and evolve new works. In an interview with Thad Martin for Ebony magazine in 1984 he said, “Now I want to paint murals and draw … I want to be an artist. I’m in love with art, with the spiritual aspirations of people, of African Americans. My job now is to reach the universal through the black art experience.”1 It was a tall order indeed. Following his official retirement, Biggers accepted commissions for two more ...

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pp. 131-134

This manuscript was completed during the time of the great hurricane Katrina-caused flood 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 ...


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pp. 135-138


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pp. 139-140


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pp. 141-149

E-ISBN-13: 9781574413946
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574412208

Page Count: 160
Illustrations: 103 duotone illus.
Publication Year: 2006