Saturday, June 13, 2009

Master Murialist John Biggers' struggle in the White Art World

Deborah Voorhees

HOUSTON - John Biggers sits in a bowed-back chair, straight and erect, and as regal as the many carved African figures surrounding him. Still, he's as casual as his workman's jumpsuit, which has a slight rip on the breast pocket.

His voice rises and then falls to a whisper as he sorts through his 73 years. Here, in his long-time home in Houston's Third Ward, he tells of a day decades ago when his direction was still unclear: A boy of no more than 7 or 8, with high cheek bones and a full set of curls, stands in the post office in patched clothes, dirty from playing in the creeks and alleys he frequents. He feels the cool marble under his feet, as he gazes way up at a man painting on a huge wall the image of blacks picking cotton. "I was fascinatedby this."

The youngest of seven has no idea that the very thing that has so entranced him will become his calling. As a black child, he can't afford whimsical dreams of being an artist. He lives in the segregated South of Gastonia, N.C., where the train shakes the ground as it rolls in, and "Negros" are expected to toil in fields, scrub laundry and clean white people's houses - not create masterpieces.

Yet, this urchin, standing on the marble floor, is destined to grow into one of America's most important black artists, and many will claim that history shall one day acknowledge him as a 20th-century master. More than 10 years passes before the child discovers his life's work: To paint his people with dignity and respect - not the grotesque "Amos and Andy" caricatures that proliferate the day.

In doing so, he ignores a chorus of voices: " A black man can not do fine art; " "there's nothing aesthetically pleasing about blacks." His only hope, his fellow brothers and others say, is to adhere to the European model: Paint white faces. "But am I not black?, " the young idealist often pleads. Thoughtfully, Mr. Biggers shifts in his seat, and explains, "This was in the 1940s, a time when a black man was to `know his place.'

"Mr. Biggers `place' in the world has became something quite different than the chorus tried to predetermine. His national retrospective, "The Art of John Biggers: View From the Upper Room, "has received many accolades and has just completed its two-year seven-city tour.

This award-winning artist not only founded the art department at Houston's Texas Southern University, where he taught for 35 years, but managed a thriving art career that includes 24 murals and many more drawings and paintings hanging in museums, institutions and private collections around the country. Robert Farris Thompson, professor of art history at Yale University, compares Mr. Biggers' Shotguns to Grant Wood's American Gothic calling it a "richly nuanced masterpiece of American painting." Olive Jensen Theisen, author of The Murals of John Thomas Biggers, says "John has been dismissed in the white art community. But I suspect that his work will endure because it has substance." Alvia Wardlaw, curator for Mr. Biggers' retrospective, says his work expresses the richness of America's south and "reaches people in the same way as a Rembrandt or a Goya."

In the past, Mr. Biggers' been accused of being derivative of Mexico's Diego Rivera, the renowned muralist who painted the struggles of his country's underclass. "There was a short period that you might call his work derivative because John was deeply influenced by Diego, " says Ms. Theisen." He wanted to do for black Americans what Diego did for his people, but by 1974 or '75 he had broken out of that mold. An art historian who looked at his work in 1955 would not see the same work in 1985 or '95."

The seeds for Mr. Biggers murals and paintings are sown in the country town of Gastonia where horse-drawn wagons and Model-T Fords often line the paved streets. Everything young John sees, feels andexperiences becomes an intricate part of his art, his story.

In the earliest pieces is the anger and bitterness at the bigotry and poverty surrounding him, and in the later ones - after visiting Africa - the healing. His childhood day-to-day surroundings - shotgun houses, washboards, black iron pots, railroad tracks and such - are all apart of his symbolism and storytelling. For example, the shotgun house becomes the temple that represents the mother, explains Mr.Biggers. "Every time you walk into your home you walk into your mother's womb."

The work ethic John Biggers grew up in a modest two-bedroom home, with the front porch notched into the square frame and the wood graying from lack of paint. Crowders Mountain stands in the distance with its maple trees reaching as high as the pines. A place so dear to him that he and his wife, Hazel Biggers, split their time between Houston and Gastonia, North Carolina. (Close by their North Carolina home, Mr. Biggers still owns 12 acres of the former plantation, where his Grandma Lizzie had been a slave until age 6. The land has been in the family ever since his grandmother inherited it from her father, a white plantation owner.)

Here, Mr. Biggers sees the shadows of the past: His older sister Ferrie propping him on her hip; his pipe-smoking Grandma Lizzie firing her shotgun; his mother, Cora, refusing to drink anything but clear water or cool lemonade (soda pops weren't fit to drink).

When John is still a little boy his father, Paul Biggers, a diabetic, becomes ill and the family has to take in laundry. Religiously, John fills the black iron washing pots and builds the fire. "He'd have the water boiling by the time my mother and I started to work, " says Ferrie Arnold, his only remaining sibling.

The women of Mr. Biggers' childhood are found throughout his paintings - not necessarily their exact likeness but their spirit and strength. For example, his Grandma Lizzie inspires his renditions of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. In fact, the very essence of what "woman" is at the core of his art. As he puts it, `She' is the creator - the past, present, future. This is evident in his mural Web of Life, where Mother Earth cradles the living and the dead in her womb, transforming death into life as a skeleton's ribs grow into a tree's roots. With the sheer enthusiasm that usually only comes with newdiscovery, Mr. Biggers picks up one of his many African woodcarvings, a mother and child, and uses it to illustrate his point.

"See one eye is the sun and one is the moon, and with her breast she offers nourishment not to just the child but to the world. In Africa, all villages must have an altar of a mother and child or they can't organize a village. This has been going on for more than 12,000 years."

Young John's life is good at home until he wanders beyond his family's protective cocoon. "We were aware of being second-classcitizens very early on, " recalls Mr. Biggers. The white children received new books; the black children used hand-me-downs. He still remembers the shame and embarrassment when a white man yells: "Nigger, boy you get off the sidewalk. You walk in the street.' Oh, yes, we had people like that." Thoughtfully, he adds, "You know the worse thing about prejudice? You never know when it's going to happen so you never feel safe.

"I'll never forget the time we went to the public library in Gastonia." He and his brother walk inside to check out a book by Mark Twain, when a librarian with red-hair and freckles screams in shock at the little boys. Black children, they learn, aren't allowed inside. Remarkably, Mr. Biggers holds no hostility for the past. "Anger only kills you. You have to learn not to be cruel to yourself. When you look at mankind from afar, social problems have been around as long as man has been on this earth, and they might not get solved in your lifetime. You still have to live your life."

This wisdom has come with age. As a child and youth he feels the anger and bitterness. "I'd see John coming down the road with these deep frowns in his brow, " says Ms. Arnold. "I'd ask him what's troubling him, `Oh, I just look around and see how bad people have to live. I just wish Ic ould do something about it." 'Not knowing how to stop the pain, John's thoughts turn to revenge: A boy of about 8 climbs up to the top of one of Gastonia's two high-rises, where he helps a brother, who's a janitor, cleanup. Up on the seventh floor, he looks down on the square.

"I thought a machine gun would be the perfect weapon. I figured Icould shoot everybody in the square before they could get to me. "Rather than giving in to this little boy's fantasy, Mr. Biggers puts his anger into his art. "Everyone has to have a place to put his anger or they become distorted. "His early works focus on poverty. The downtrodden, he paints in rich red, blue and green hues. The figures such as the "Laundry Woman" or the "Mother and Child" all have large well-used hands, signifying the day-to-day toil.

In "The Garbage Man, " an old guy with his toes sticking through his shoes, combs through the backalleys picking up thrown away produce. "He's not getting food for the hogs, " says the muralist and painter. "That's for his family."

In "Dying Soldier, " his first mural, is his anger when Pearl Harbor is bombed. The young college student knows he might have to die for a country that has labeled him second-class. The piece becomes a part of the "Young Negro Art" exhibit at the Museum ofModern Art in New York. Critics of the day dismiss it as "screaming propaganda." Other naysayers criticize his paintings for not being "pleasant." Never deterred, he continues his work. "I had to express the great problems of the world." Regardless of how depressed his subjects' lives, they always have a quiet dignity, much like the man himself with his snap-cap pulled down over his graying curls.

John Biggers calling comes in the early 1940s while on a work-study program at Hampton Institute, near Norfolk, Va. This pristine campus, now called Hampton University, forever changes him. Many mornings, the lean sinewy Biggers strolls along the waterfront watching the ships go by and wanders among the school's many buildings that range from Gothic, Bavarian and Victorian to Greek and Roman revival and Colonial (all will become major vocal points in his 1991 Hampton mural House of the Turtle).

For this teen, Hampton symbolizes freedom and liberation. The very land it sits on has been transformed from a slave plantation, Little Scotland, to a place of learning, founded by General Samuel Chapman Armstrong in 1868 for ex-slaves and their descendants (Booker T. Washington attended here).

Beyond the school's long-gone farm fields and orchards, sits theEmancipation Oak where slaves first heard Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Named one of the 10 great trees in the world by the National Geographic Society, the oak spans 98 feet in diameter. Her branches, as thick as most trunks, literally swoop down to the earth as if she could comfort all of humanity. Under her protective cover, young John stares up into her dense and twisting web, coming to her for picnics with friends, and alone to sketch or to contemplate the past, the future.

"It was like coming into our Great Mother's arms." The lad doesn't know that a half a century away, young men and women will file into the one-time library, where he so admires Henry O. Tanner's The Banjo Lesson, to see his national retrospective, "View From the Upper Room." And just across campus from this same building, which is now a museum, the yet to be built Harvey Library will house two of his major murals, House of theTurtle and Tree House. The latter has at its center theEmancipation Oak.

Originally, John comes to this school to learn to work the wrench and plunger, but his quest to be a plumber is short lived. Fond of sketching, he takes a night course in drawing, where he meets his life-long mentor and friend, Viktor Lowenfeld. Newly escaped from Nazi Europe, Mr. Lowenfeld speaks in brokenEnglish, the words John desperately needs to hear. Mr. Biggers still recalls them: " `Art is a field of absolute freedom. No man can interfere with that.' That's why I went into art. Freedom is what it means to me."

Mr. Lowenfeld teaches John to paint what has meaning for him. "Iknew then that this was something I really wanted to do. Even though it was risk, I didn't care. I was too fascinated to turn back."

"When we heard he was going to be an artist, we thought, `Oh my, he's going to die poor, ' " says Ms. Arnold. Of course, that didn'thappen. "He's helped out all his siblings. He'd bring everyone to his exhibits around country. And he and Hazel took Mother to live with them her last 13 years and dressed her up so nicely I didn'trecognize her."

Back at Hampton, John enjoys going to Mr. Lowenfeld's home for dinner, where they discuss art and play the music of great classical composers. Here, John discovers the connection between music and painting. To this day, he creates to music: Beethoven and Brahms for planning and jazz and gospel for painting.

One night with Mr. Lowenfeld stands out in Mr. Biggers' mind. The weight of the evening's news still shows on his face: Mr. Lowenfeld drives down a gravel lane at dusk with John in the passenger seat. He pulls his black Chevrolet off the road and opens a letter from the United States Department of State, reading it aloud for the first time. It notifies him that his family has been burned in a concentration camp.

"I saw a man full of sadness, " recalls Mr. Biggers, remembering Mr. Lowenfeld's words: "John you have to ride on the back of buses, you're segregated and you have to face prejudice all the time, but they're not burning you."

At this moment, John learns the horrible thing called hatred isn't just black and white. "From then on I set out to understand the nature of prejudice." He believes he's found the answer: Economics.

While tending to his class work John hears that the renowned African American muralist Charles White, on a Julius Rosenwald grant, is coming to Hampton to paint "The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America."

Determined to learn from him, John stays close to him, sweeping floors, mixing paints or whatever he can to make himself useful. Eventually, it pays off. Not only does John observe the masterworking, but Mr. White asks John to pose for him. John's image represents a runaway slave in that mural, which still hangs in the school's music hall.

In 1946, after a brief stint in the Navy, John follows his beloved instructor to Pennsylvania State University, where Mr. Biggers eventually receives all three of his degrees. One of only a handful of blacks, John is terribly lonely. About three weeks into classes, John walks out of the campus library, which sits on top of a hill. Two intellectual Jewish activists approach him, asking him if he wants to join the NAACP. John responds, "I've been a member all my life."

Within minutes John accepts an invitation to indulge in the box of goodies that just came from one of their homes: salami sandwiches and some cake. "Up until then nobody had said hello. In the North, people were cold. At least in the South, people talked to you even though they walked in that door and you walked in another door."

Finding his new acquaintances stimulating, John joins up with them, becoming the first African American to join Penn State'schapter of the NAACP. "Before I came along they had been protesting but without a black person they had trouble making their point."

Soon John and his new friends are protesting barbershops that refuse to cut his hair, and they are leaving their food untouched at lunch counters that won't serve him. Even with his friends, John's time here is difficult. Art professors push him to quit his studies, telling him blacks can't do fine art and that he has no talent. In his physical education class book, he reads that blacks run fast because they have the same leg bones as a gorilla.

After college the hip, in-place for an artist to go is New York City, but John doesn't follow any of the so-called "cutting-edge"causes to catapult him into "inner" circle. His mission is simple: to paint his people."The one thing that characterizes artists in the 20th century is that they all want to be on the cutting edge, " explains Ms.Theisen, author of The Murals of John Thomas Biggers. "But the cutting edge keeps moving, which means the average artist gives reaction to the subject-of-the-moment rather having a clear vision of what he wants to say before his painting life is over."

John has that vision. "Turning his back on New York City, Mr. Biggers heads to Houston in 1949 to start the art department at Texas Southern University with his bride, Hazel Biggers, of one year. He takes with him his strong work ethic he learned from his parents - something that becomes crucial to starting the school's art department while still teaching and painting. This intense and passionate young man often works seven days a week when creating amural. It's not unusually for him to get up at 3 or 4 just to paintand then drive across town around 9 to teach.

"Just like a farmer with a hard rocky field to hoe, you work from caint see to caintsee, " says Mr. Biggers.

During his 35 years at TSU, he wins several art awards including two in the early 1950s.

Segregation keeps him from going inside the Texas museums to accept his drawing awards: The Schlumberger Prize at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston for The Cradle, and the Neiman Marcus prize at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts for Sleeping Boy. The reception for the Dallas event is cancelled and are presentive gruffly hands him the award in the parking lot. In Houston, the reception honoring him isn't on a day that blacks can attend, so Mr. Biggers is once again shut out. The director, James Chillman, gives Mr. Biggers a private showing and then sets about to have the rule abolished.

As an educator, Mr. Biggers mixes Mr. Lowenfeld's teaching philosophy with his "no excuse" toughness - something he's still teaching today. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Biggers, in his jean jumper and cap, stands in a foyer of the University of Houston's downtown campus where he's completing the mural Salt Marsh. Most students hurry through between classes with hardly a glance, but many others stop to shake the master's hand or to give a compliment or to argue an artistic point.

One passerby turns up his nose, "Why is it so dark? "Uninsulted, Mr. Biggers simply says, "There must be darkness before there's light. "Toward the end of the day, a youth probably in his early 20s comes by. Scolding him, Mr. Biggers asks, "So what happened to make you afraid of us?" Flustered, Shannon, a student at the University of Houston, swears he isn't fearful but he's merely been outfinding work. "What does that have to do with your art? All artists have to find work but you still have to do your art."

With a reassuring smile, Mr. Biggers points to the image of a wooden plank in his mural. "We need a pigeon for right there. You bring a sketch and then you can paint it." The slightly intimidated but delighted Shannon leaves swearing to return no later than Tuesday with his pigeon drawing in hand.

Chuckling as he watches him leave, Mr. Biggers says, "It'simportant that the students are involved with the work. It has more meaning that way."

Through the years Mr. Biggers, with his wife, has traveled throughout West Africa: Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Sudan, Dahomey (now Republic of Benin). This place forever changes him and his art. In Ede, Nigeria, they're greeted by an elder, who introduces them to a crowd: "These are your brothers who have returned after400 years."

Everywhere they go they're treated as family. Strangers welcome them into their homes offering food and shelter. At times, interpreters help with the language barriers and other times, the couple manages with hand signals and such.

With a faraway look in his eyes, Mr. Biggers says, "I enjoyed my time there so doggone much."

Even in Africa, in a place he feels such a kinship with, Mr. Biggers won't relax. Every day he busily snaps photos and sketches the world around him. The artist knows he has much painting on Africa to do, and he'll need the images to meld the visions of Africa with those of black America."

John wanted to stay in Africa, " says his wife with her soft Southern accent. "You have to understand that when we first went to Africa things were rough in the states. Segregation, discrimination. It was bad. So many places you couldn't go. To go to a place where you had some freedom was something.

"Ultimately, Mr. Biggers knew it was more important to return home to his family and to educate people on what he saw. "Perhaps if I didn't have family here I would have stayed, " he now says. "This might seem strange but your home is your home."

After several trips to Africa and much soul searching, Mr.Biggers hit a creative crisis that he says landed him in the hospital. Medically it's called tuberculous, but Mr. Biggers, who nearly died from it, sees it differently. He believes his problems had to do with his psychological drive to create as an African craftsman. He no longer wanted to draw and paint analytically and visually.

"I was trying to paint entirely from the interior, which hasnothing to do with perspective, nothing to do with balance of colorand space."

For seven years during the '70s he fears he will never paint again. When he finally picks up a brush, the experience is cathartic. Hired to paint the mural "Family Unity" at Texas Southern University, Mr. Biggers never knows from moment to moment what image will emerge next.

For three long years, it comes in pieces, a struggle for a man who methodically sketches out his murals. Suddenly, his figures become less distinct, more universal, bordering on abstraction. Geometric shapes are integrated into his works in the form of quilt patterns, which were inspired by the "poetry" that his mother and grandmother made when sewing together fabrics cut from worn clothes.

He no longer is painting of just the earth, but of heaven, the universe, the cycle of life and the idea of the human soul and mind moving toward wisdom. It's as if Mr.Biggers evolves from painting the Crucifixion to the Resurrection.

Now, Mr. Biggers is trying to complete what he tells his wife will be his last mural (though, she's not betting on this), and he's battling his health. Diabetes has caused Mr. Biggers' kidneys to fail. When the doctor first tell him dialysis is the only answer, Mrs. Biggers says, he refuses to go to the kidney center. Fearing he'll be an invalid, he turns to a Chinese herbalist and an acupuncturist, but nothing helps.

With his health deteriorating, the doctor finally tells him it's time or he'll die. Ever since last February, he has been on a homedialysis machine just a little more than 11 hours each night. In pure Mr. Biggers style he speaks of getting a chance to read and sketch, not of the hours confined to his bedroom. "He never talks about when I retire, " says Earlie Hudnall, a former student."

It's always about what work he has yet to do. That fire in his belly is always going."

Indeed, Mr. Biggers says he doesn't plan on dying anytime soon. "I have much more to paint."

1 comment:

GeorgeThomasClark said...

Since you admire John Biggers, you may be interested in my recent series on Charles White -

Charles White Endures