John T. Biggers
John Thomas Biggers (April 13, 1924 – January 25, 2001) was an African-American muralist who came to prominence after the Harlem Renaissance and toward the end of World War II. Biggers was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, and attended the Lincoln Academy, the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). Biggers planned to become a plumber, but his life took a dramatic change of course when he took an art class with Viktor Lowenfeld, a Jewish refugee who had fled Austria before World War II. Afterward, Biggers began to study art. In 1943, he was drafted and joined the U.S. Navy, where he remained stationed at the Hampton Institute and made models of military equipment for training purposes. In that same year, his talents were recognized when his worked was included in a landmark exhibit Young Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
He later attended Pennsylvania State University, from which he earned a doctorate in 1954. From 1954 to 1955, he was in his home town, working on the many paintings that are now very well distinguished.
In Houston, Texas, Biggers served as the founding chairman of the art department at Houston's Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University) in 1949. In 1950, Biggers won first prize for his painting The Cradle at the annual exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. "Segregationist policies, however, allowed black visitors into the museum only on Thursdays, so he could not attend the show's opening."
Biggers received a fellowship in 1957 from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, allowing him to become one of the first African-American artists to visit Africa. Under the auspices of UNESCO, he and his wife, Hazel, traveled to Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and Togo to experience Western African cultural traditions first-hand. The African design motifs and scenes of life that he witnessed then were important elements of his work. He returned to Africa again in 1969, 1984 and 1987.
Biggers studied under Viktor Lowenfeld, first at Hampton Institute and later at Penn State. Lowenfeld significantly influenced Biggers's artistic development. Biggers later created works that reflected his perspective of the anguish that people have suffered merely because of their race or religious beliefs.
He died at age 76 in Houston.
John Biggers studied African myths and legends and was particularly drawn to the creation stories of a matriarchal deistic system, contrasting with the patriarchal images of the European world. As his ideas and images of Africa melded into the memories of his rural Southern life, his work became more geometric, stylized and symbolic. Quilt-like geometric patterning became a unifying element of his work and color became richer and lighter.
Robert Farris Thompson calls attention to Biggers’ iconic treatment of household items associated with everyday domestic life, reinforcing the representation of the shotgun house as a symbol of collective dignity and cultural identity. The recurring symbol of the simple shotgun with a woman standing on the porch can be interpreted not only as the simplest type of housing but also as a reference to women, through whom all creation comes. The repeated triangular roof shape reminds one of the pieces of a quilt, a beautiful whole cloth made from many irregular and useless pieces, another symbol of the creative force.
His papers, including correspondence, photographs, printed materials, professional materials, subject files, writings, and audiovisual materials documenting his work as an artist and educator are located at Emory University's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library in Atlanta, Georgia.
On October 8, 2009, Swann Galleries set an auction record for any work by Biggers when they sold the painting Shotguns, acrylic and oil on canvas, 1987, for $216,000 in a sale of African-American Fine Art. A stellar representation of the shotgun-style houses found in Southern black communities, the painting had been widely exhibited and was considered a culmination of Biggers’s work. It had remained in a private collection since being acquired directly from the artist in 1987.
- "Jason Sweeney, "Biggers, John Thomas"". Texas State Historical Association.
- Whitfield Lovell, John (2004). John Biggers My America. New York, NY: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. p. 49. ISBN 978-1930416284.
- Cotter, Holland. "John Biggers, 76, Painter Who Explored African Life".
- "John Biggers Brought African Influence to Art". African American Registry. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
- Eglash, Ron. (2004). “A Geometrical Bridge Across the Middle Passage: Mathematics the in Art of John Biggers.” The International Review of African American Art, Vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 29-33.
- Farris Thompson, Robert. (1995) "John Biggers’s Shotguns of 1987: An American Classic, The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room." Houston, TX: The Museum of Fine Arts, 108.
- The Murals of John T. Biggers
- The Houston Murals of John Thomas Biggers
- John T. Biggers Collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin
- John Biggers Papers, Emory University
- Biggers, John and David Courtwright. John Biggers Oral History, Houston Oral History Project, September 15, 1975.