John Biggers: His Life and Art

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The American artist John Biggers died a year ago, on January 28, at the age of 76. A masterful artist, Biggers was known for his meticulous depictions of Africans and African Americans. As well as remarkably accurate, his drawings, paintings, and sculpture render suffering with powerful feeling, and his late work transcends earth and time. Biggers lived and taught in Houston for many years. Peter C. Marzio, writing as Director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, said about Biggers that his paintings, “almost demand a fourth dimension to let us experience everything that is in the artist’s heart and mind.”

Biggers was born in 1924 in Gastonia, North Carolina, in a tight knit community of African Americans. Biggers’ parents and the community struggled to deal with what were known as Jim Crow laws, laws enacted in the South which made discrimination against Blacks legal. The dangers and obstacles that adults and children faced every day make all of their lives and achievements remarkable. Nevertheless, the love and strength, and the gatherings of women at night to make quilts, remained with Biggers as important memories throughout his life.

As a young man Biggers attended Hampton Institute, a college for black students. At Hampton students had to help with school maintenance in order to keep costs down. Biggers studied to be a plumber, but he had also been drawing since high school. Attracted to the art department, he began studying with Victor Lowenfeld, who had come to Hampton to teach in 1939 as a Jewish refugee from Austria. Lowenfeld¿s passion for art, his gifts as a teacher, and his personal experience of the pain and destructiveness of prejudice and racism made him an ideal mentor for John Biggers. Biggers was encouraged to explore European, African, and African American visual heritage in his work. He also studied the great Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. The art historian Alvia J. Wardlaw writes that he formed a strong conviction that life and art must be connected. Later on he traveled to Africa four times, travels which influenced the patterns and themes of his work.

His later paintings, my favorites, are difficult to describe. Elements of geometric pattern from his childhood experience of quilts and from textiles from Africa, images of nature such as birds and water, references to the creative power of women, and a sense of both earthly experience and transcendence exist in these works.

Biggers painted “Woman and Twins with Boat” in the mid-1970s. A woman stands at the water’s edge, dressed in African cloth. She holds twins snugly to her with cloth wrappings, as an African woman might. At her feet are clay pots, also possibly an allusion to Africa. In the sky are two globes, perhaps a sun and a moon, both in geometric patterns. A boat with figures in it floats in the distance, while twin boats appear at her feet. Perhaps the woman gives birth to the twins and prepares them to set sail on the ocean of their lives. The woman, the twins, the ocean, the boats, the sky, and the abstract patterns which unite them all, are beautifully painted. They express symbolic connections and meanings, which could not be articulated any other way.

John Biggers’ life, his contribution to our national art, and his death last year are truly worth noting. His vision was one of humanity in harmony with nature. He celebrated human communal life and the values both spiritual and earthy, which make it possible. It’s a vision for both art and culture that our society desperately needs.

This is Lois Eby.

–Lois Eby is a painter who comments on the arts, women’s issues, and civil rights.

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