Minnie Evans: Far from traditional

“Three faces in floral design” Minnie Evans, 1967

Minnie Eva Jones was born on December 12th, 1892 in a log cabin in Long Creek, North Carolina. Now, just to give you a little perspective, in the 2020 census, the unincorporated community of Long Creek had a population 277. Minnie’s mother, Ella Jones, was 14 years old when she gave birth to Minnie. A child herself. Minnie’s father, George Moore, was also very young – though I couldn’t find a source that specified exactly how young… But he wasn’t really up for the responsibility and abandoned his little family.

Ella, Minnie’s mother, worked as a domestic at the time and when her infant was 2 months old, Ella took Minnie to live with her mother, Mary Jones, in Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s Mary, Minnie’s grandmother who Minnie would call, “Mama.” Her biological mother, Ella, became more of a sister figure to her. Minnie’s great-grandmother, Rachel, who lived with them until Minnie was 7, traced their ancestry back to Rachel’s great-grandmother, Moni, who’d been brought to North Carolina from Trinidad as a slave.

Minnie began school at five years old and attended until she was in the sixth grade – leaving school to help earn money for her family. But while she was in school, she loved studying history and Greek mythology. She said she would learn things and forget things in school – perhaps like the rest of us. She said, “I did not love anything but history, which I would never forget. I would love to read about the Gods. I would always love to watch the moon and stars.”

As a child Minnie experienced very intense vivid dreams that disturbed her sleep and made her prone to waking dreams and visions by day. And she often heard voices. She is quoted as saying that she couldn’t recall a night she slept without having dreams. Her waking dreams, however, created recurring hallucinatory experiences that led to a confused sense of reality. According to author and art historian, Gylbert Coker, there were times when Minnie could barely distinguish between dreams and visions, as well as between dreams and wakeful experiences. This continued throughout her life, though with varying intensities. The waking dreams were frequently images of prophets and religious figures, real and mythical animals, flowers, plants and faces. She wasn’t completely out of touch though. She was very aware that her experiences were unusual and was cautious about letting others know about this phenomenon.

When she left school, she worked as, what was called, a “Sounder” – gathering shellfish from the sound in Wrightsville, North Carolina which she sold door to door.

If you don’t know what a sound is, it’s a smaller body of water typically connected to a larger sea or ocean.

Minnie met and married, 19-year-old, Julius Caesar Evans, four days after her own 16th birthday. But Minnie was not of legal marrying age, so she wrote that she was 18 on the marriage license. The couple would later joke about this throughout their marriage. Minnie gave birth to three sons – David Barnes, Elisha Dyer and George Sheldon – after the New York millionaires who visited the Pembroke estate.

Minnie’s husband, Julius, worked as the valet for Pembroke Jones, a wealthy financier and socialite – while Minnie, employed on the estate as well, work as a domestic. After the death of Pembroke Jones, his widow remarried in the year, 1919 and moved with her new husband, Henry Walters (son of the founder of the Walter Art Gallery in Baltimore), to an estate called, Airlie where the Evans continued working for the family. The 150 acres were developed into expansive Gardens and opened to the public in 1943, five years after the death of Mrs. Walters. Minnie worked as the gatekeeper, collecting admission for visitors until she retired in 1974.

She didn’t start drawing until she was 43 when a voice told her she must “draw or die.” On Good Friday, 1935, Minnie unknowingly embarked on her new passion, and created her first drawings – two small pictogram-like works. Both are now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American art.

In 1940, she began a series of pencil and crayon drawings, most of them measured to be about 7”x 5.”  She carried them in her purse for many years. These works she created acted as talismans for her. She said that she kept them physically with her, because they relieved her from the emotional tension of her visions. These abstracts worked as protection from her visions while they did not specifically address them.  

Nathan Kernan, in his essay titled, “Aspects of Minnie Evans,” stated, “Evans turned to art as a means of exercising the crippling power of her dreams, somewhat in the way the still more desperate Antonin Artaud drew his gris-gris of 1943 to 1944, which had a curative, protective, offensive function against the demons assailing him.”

In the event you don’t know what a gris-gris is, it is a charm or an amulet worn as protection against evil or to encourage good fortune. You’ll especially find this term used among those who practice Voodoo. However, many other spiritual practices around the world have their own term for this type of object. Think of the Italian Mano Figa or the ancient Grecian Evil Eye.

Antonin Artaud’s gris-gris were described by one art historian as drawn hieroglyphs made up of crosses and other geometric lines and arranged in a repetitive symmetry. This work was compared to a description of Minnie’s early drawings from 1935 and the early 1940s and what Evans called the ancient writing that occasionally appears in her work.

I need to stop here though. I’m not sure why these art historians are comparing Minnie’s work with Artaud’s work, since Minnie’s work came first. Artaud was a White French, writer, visual artist, dramatist and poet and though I was able to view many of his drawings, I’ve not yet found anything that resembled Minnie’s early work online. Now, to be fair, I didn’t dig super hard because this was never about Artaud, but I found this comparison of her to him slightly disturbing. My only guess is that these art historians may have seen Minnie’s condition as a mental illness and compared her to Artaud who was admitted, multiple times to mental institutions.

Back to Minnie Evans…

She often said that the meaning of her work was a mystery to her. She couldn’t tell you what any of it meant and sometimes referred to the force that drove her to draw as an engine.

Her work was an automatic process, seemingly directed by outside forces. Evans once stated, ” I have no imagination. I never plan a drawing. They just happen.”

There was a 5-year gap between her first two works and her next drawing. She stumbled across her two dated drawings one day. On one she had written, “My very first.” And on the other, it said, “My second.” She had found them stuck in the pages of a magazine that she was about to toss. It was like a sign…

Minnie began drawing compulsively after that, and her family started freaking out a little and worried that she might be losing it. But they got used to it. Eventually. She gave her pictures to people who admired her work and eventually hung them up near the gatehouse at the gardens where she worked, and started selling her drawings for 50 cents each. I did a rough calculation and found that at that price, the value would be a little over $10 in today’s money.

Minnie was a big fan of symmetry. A lot of her works are vertical in format, kept within the confines of a whimsical border. She gravitated to images of buds about to flower, cocoons and butterfly shapes. It’s been suggested that possibly, that oriental rugs that Minnie probably saw and cleaned in her employer’s homes might have inspired these compositions. In fact, one photo from the early 40’s illustrating a sculptural form standing in a small room includes, in the foreground, a rug whose pattern closely resembles one of Minnie’s early drawings.

In the 50’s and 60’s, Minnie’s art began including more representational images and less abstracted ones. These were depictions of her dreams or visions with imaginative creatures and sacred buildings located in otherworldly landscapes. The dreams she illustrated were rendered by her love of ancient mythology and her favorite book of the Bible. The Book of Revelation. Of the Book of Revelation, she said   “I love to read it and I love to think about it… the New Jerusalem.”

Minnie is probably best-known for her art that combines symmetrical abstraction with figurative elements. A good example might be the work I described at the top of this episode. These works portray fantastical worlds – that of serenity and usually female or of ambiguous gendered figures, rarely male – surrounded by colorful flora, fauna and abstract figures.

I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that color bursts into her work around the same time she starts working as a gatekeeper at the Airlie Gardens. A garden stuffed with flowers, leaves, birds and butterflies – just like her work. Minnie once said, “I think sometime, once upon a time, some nation what you call idolized butterflies.”

Here’s a quote about color by Minnie. She said, “And more than a dozen times I’ve seen the most beautifulest cities in the sky. Just beautiful cities of rainbow colors. Now we dreams, we talk of heaven, we think everything is going to be white. But I believe we’re going to have the beautiful rainbow colors.”

In 1961, she had her first one-person exhibition at the Artists’ Gallery in Wilmington, North Carolina, now the St John’s Museum. In the following year, she met Nina Howell Starr, a graduate photography student at the University of Florida. Nina was in her 50s at the time of their meeting and became Minnie’s pro bono, defacto, agent, selling Minnie’s work from Nina’s New York apartment. Nina encouraged and worked with Minnie from 1962 until 1984, and traveled to see Minnie frequently and was instrumental in showing Minnie’s work in New York galleries.

Minnie’s first New York City exhibition, was at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in 1966, followed by other modest exhibitions in 1966 and 1969.

According to the exhibition catalog, Black Folk Artists; Minnie Evans and Bill Traylor, from the African American Museum, “The first Minnie Evans exhibitions were in the 1960s – 1961, Wilmington, North Carolina and in 1966, New York. Evans came to New York on that occasion and visited the Metropolitan Museum. This inspired her to enlarge the scale of her work and to redo earlier pieces in a larger format.”

This is corroborated by Nathan Kernan in his essay, “Aspects of Minnie Evans.” In it, he states, “After she returned home influenced by the larger sizes of some of the work she had seen in the museum, Evans began to make larger works by cutting up existing drawings gluing them to board or canvas board and expanding them with the addition of new paintings.”

One of Minnie’s pieces in the Petulo Collection bears the dates 1960, 1963 and 1966 and shows seams where the work has been cut and a triangular center section inserted. Most likely, this is one of the paintings she expanded for scale.

Author, Mary E. Lyons, recalls how Nina, Minnie’s champion and agent, suggested that Minnie go back and sign and date earlier works. She said “Minnie agreed, though she had trouble estimating dates for pictures she had completed 10 years earlier. As a result, many dates are incorrect. Not all of the signatures are Minnie’s either – in the early ’60s, Minnie asked her granddaughter to sign her pictures for her.”

A small exhibition of Minnie”s work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975. It was guest curated by Minnie’s own, Nina Starr. This was followed by retrospectives organized by the North Carolina Museum of Art in 1986 and the Wellington B. Gray Gallery at East Carolina University, North Carolina, in 1993. That show traveled to the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City in 1994. The work of Minnie Evans continues to be exhibited in modern art museums as a great contribution to 20th century art.

Minnie was also honored on May 14th 1994, when it was declared Minnie Evans day in Greenville, North Carolina.

Minnie’s husband, Julius Evans, died back in 1956. Ella Jones Kelly, Minnie’s mother, who lived with her from 1954 on, died in 1981 at the age of 102. Minnie moved into a nursing home in 1982 and on December 16th 1987, she died at the age of 95.

Discussion of “Homage to Black Women Poets” w/ Henry Jones III

Homage to Black Women Poets, 1984, by Elizabeth Catlett
“Homage to My Black Sisters,” Elizabeth Catlett, 1968

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Elizabeth Catlett

“Sharecropper” by Elizabeth Catlett (c. 1952)

An older woman looks up and out to the right. A wide brimmed sun hat shades her face and covers her white hair. Her clothes are very modest. In fact, her jacket is closed with a safety pin. There is a look in her face that could be curiosity. It could be hopefulness. There is almost a smile looming behind the look that doesn’t quite reach her lips.

This is Elizabeth Catlett’s 1952 linoleum cut work titled Sharecropper, that addressed the oppressive post-slavery system that once entrapped countless Black farmworkers in the South.

Elizabeth Catlett was born on April 15th, 1915 in Washington DC, at Freedmen’s Hospital (now known as Howard University Hospital). She was the youngest of three children of John and Mary Carson Catlett. Both her maternal and paternal grandparents were born into slavery. Her father, before he passed away, taught math at Tuskegee Institute and in Washington, D.C., but he died shortly after her birth. As a child, sometimes Catlett was left with a family friend while her mother worked several jobs to support her children. Catlett once said, “I remember drawing and painting while at this lady’s house… as a very happy part of my childhood.”

She was at Dunbar High school, when she decided to become an artist and was accepted and won a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. This was a really big deal, but after learning she was Black, CIT rescinded her acceptance. She would recall the devastation this caused, for the rest of her life. Mary, her mother encouraged her to attend Howard University and she did – in 1932. It was here, that she initially majored in design under Lois Mailou Jones, with the intent of becoming a textile designer. Her art history professor, James B. Herring once loaned her a book on African sculpture, which completely impressed her. If you recall, we spoke of James Herring several times in this podcast, particularly in the episodes on David Driskell and Alma Thomas. Catlett’s painting teacher, James A. Porter (also mentioned previously), introduced her to the work and concepts of Mexican muralists. She was so moved by this that she changed her major from textile design to painting.

Her painting teacher, James A. Porter, arranged for Catlett to get a job on the pre-WPA mural project, but unfortunately, it didn’t last. She was fired for goofing off. She said, “I was silly – I didn’t do the work I was supposed to do. The money went to my head.” Despite this, though, she graduated with honors; from Howard in 1935.

On graduating, Catlett obtained a job teaching art at a Black high school in Durham, North Carolina, while supervising art education in eight elementary schools. For all this, she was paid $57.50 a month. She was in the segregated south, but it wasn’t segregation that caught her off guard, but the insatiable, materialistic attitudes of some Black people in the community; the lack of empathy to the needs of emotionally disturbed children, and other Black educators’ who tried to quash teachers demands for better pay. She was even kicked out and forcibly removed from a teachers’ meeting where she raised these issues. This experience made her re-examine social and economic relationships and even though her salary rose to $79 a month, she split.

In 1939, Catlett began her graduate studies at the University of Iowa, partly because there was no tuition increase for non-resident students and partly because, at that time, the influential artist Grant Wood, headed the art department there. His critical attitude towards American self-righteous arrogance, expressed in his satirical and extensively reproduced paintings, “American Gothic” and “Daughters of Revolution,” impressed Catlett. Okay, let’s be honest here, “American Gothic” by Grant Wood impresses everybody. That’s why the work is so wildly famous. You might not know it by its name but, think of the husband with the eye glasses holding a pitchfork and the wife looking scornfully at him. Yes. That painting.

She felt Wood was demanding, but fair. He believed a master’s candidate needed to demonstrate proficiency in all major art media. So, when exploring modeling and carving, Catlett found a pleasure in the tactile awareness of the material. She said, “I like to feel something in my hands and to feel I am shaping or molding or changing something.” she explained, recalling how much she had enjoyed sewing, knitting, and crocheting. She still painted but she gravitated more towards wood and stone and was the first woman to receive an MFA in sculpture from the university.

She said later, “You might say that the United States racism formed my artistic perspective and molded my life attitude from a very early age. Grant Wood, one of the first White people that I had contact with, emphasize that we should paint what we knew most intimately… and my people have always been just that- what I know most intimately.” Catlett’s thesis was a distinctive stone statue of a Black mother and child, which took months to carve. Grant Wood loved it.

This same sculpture that delighted the hard-to-please Grant Wood, won first prize in sculpture at the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago. At this exposition she met many young Black artists, which also included Charles White, who she ended up marrying. Shortly after this exposition, she was appointed as head of the art department at Dillard University, in New Orleans, where White also taught. However, the administration wasn’t taking her seriously in her quest to develop a complete art program – so she resigned.

She and Charles White moved to New York, where White studied printmaking at the Art Students League under Harry Sternberg, a New York painter, muralist, lithographer and educator. Sternberg, however, recommended that Catlett study with Ossip Zadkine – a Russian-born sculptor known for his dramatic Cubist-inspired sculptures.

Zadkine was almost destitute – a refugee from World War II – even though he was considered a master sculptor. Catlett said, “He was working in a heatless studio, and I think I was his first student.” She was struggling herself and couldn’t manage to pay the $50 a month fee for more than 2 months – but he let her stay on in exchange for taking care of his cats on the weekends and when he was away.

She said, “I was most attracted to Zadkine because of the great vitality I saw in his work and him.  He was such a vital person when he was working and talking. I was enormously impressed with his great creativity… We used to argue a lot about my doing Black people.” Zadkine felt art should begin from a humanistic international viewpoint. “I felt the contrary – that it should begin as a nationalistic experience and be projected towards international understanding, as our blues and spirituals do. They are our experience, but they are understood and felt everywhere.”

Catlett and White were cut from the same cloth when it came to combatting prejudice and developing their individual artistic voices. During this period White’s health was not great, but he was commissioned to create a mural depicting historic African-American leaders at Hampton Institute in Virginia. You might recall this from the episode about John Thomas Biggers. Because of this, Catlett and White were given teaching assignments at Hampton by Victor Lowenfeld, an innovative Austrian psychologist and artists who headed the University’s first art department.

The couple, were accomplished artists and were examples to the students of what a Black artist could achieve despite the country’s oppression. Catlett and White had many evenings of philosophical conversations with Lowenfeld, who believed strongly in using creativity and self-expression to build self-esteem. He emboldened Black artists to embrace their heritage in their artistic work. White’s mural embodied Lowenfeld’s artistic philosophy, portraying historic African American leaders.

Catlett and White return to New York. But White was drafted into the army. He was discharged after he contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized, until after World War II. Meanwhile, as White was convalescing, Catlett turned into one of the most dynamic teachers at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem. Though she was criticized by the infamous House on American Activities Committee that labeled her as a subversive, George Washington Carver School was supported by many powerful Harlem leaders, like the poet and painter Gwendolyn Bennett a former president of the Harlem artist Guild and director of the Harlem Community Arts center; Norman Lewis and Ernest Critchlow who were also art teachers. This was the era of McCarthyism, where communist vilification became a Salem-esque witch hunt which destroyed the careers of so many because of false or exaggerated claims.

Catlett was passionate about inspiring her people artistically and raised money out in the streets to do her part to support the school. She was more than a teacher.  Her deep involvement galvanized her and brought her into contact with different kinds of people, some, she hadn’t been interacted with before. She said, “I came from a middle-class family, even though my mother had to work hard. But the school brought me into contact with working people. For the first time I began to get an understanding of the great hunger for art and culture of ordinary Black people.”

After World War II, the vibe of the community changed. The solidarity of the people in Harlem, was gone. The Harlem Community Arts Center and the Harlem Artist Guild, had evaporated. Sculptor, Augusta Savage, upon returning from a leave of absence found that her position had been assumed by someone else. After multiple attempts and failures with creating other independent venues for lack of funding, she left depressed, hurt and angry and sought refuge in an isolated Upstate Farm. All the while, accusations from the House Committee on Un-American Activities were smearing names and obliterating careers. The Congressional attacks weren’t limited to the political left. Anything modern or Progressive in art came under attack. Congressman George A. Dondero was targeting abstract art as well as, art with social content. The George Washington Carver School wasn’t able to survive in this atmosphere.

In 1946, Catlett won a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship, enabling her to study in Mexico, where she dove deeper into the ideals of muralists. She said, “Coming directly from Harlem … strengthened my belief in an art for people, all kinds of people, and the necessity for them being able to participate aesthetically in our production as artists.” Catlett studied with Francisco Zuniga, a Costa Rican born Mexican sculptor. She learned ancient techniques of ceramic sculpturing from pre-Spanish eras. She also studied wood carving with Jose Elarese and Jose L. Ruiz and then started making lithographic prints in the Taller de Grafica Popular.

She came to know almost all of Mexico’s big shot artists – including David Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, Pablo O. Higgins, Leopold Mendez, Alfredo Zalce, Rufino Tamayo, and Francisco Mora, who became husband #2 after her divorce from Charles White, from whom she had long been separated.

Mora’s influence changed some of her cultural ideas. She said, “It ended my great interest in material things – and having things, and in keeping up with what other people have. When I lived in New York I had to have a coat every two years, and all kinds of things like that. My husband came from a very poor family, and I have since witnessed what is really basic in life: a place to live and food and doing the work you want to do – doing a job that means something to you instead of a job to make money.”

Catlett said,”I have also learned from Francisco what it means to be a really creative person. Working in the Taller de Grafica. I learned that art is not something that people learn to do individually, that who does it is not important, but it’s use and it’s effects on people are what is most important.” This concept is a departure from traditional Western ideas that emphasized the individual artist. She said, “We worked collectively. I still ask people’s opinion while I am working: what they think of what I am doing. And if it is clear to them. We work collectively, although we criticize each other’s work from a positive point of view, trying to help, trying to see what would better the work.”

“We also work together. I remember a poster that Leopold and Pablo drew. They gave me the drawing and I developed the design for a silkscreen, but being very pregnant I couldn’t do the screening myself, so someone else did that. The thinking of many people on one subject, or a piece of art or creating, can also work very well.”

When her children were very young, Catlett continued making prints but did very little sculpting. And please don’t think that McCarthyism which terrorized the U.S. didn’t leak its accusations into Mexico. Even in Mexico, Catlett was harassed because of her past associations and because her husband, Francisco Mora, worked on behalf of Mexican railroad workers unions. Eventually, Catlett did escape the harassment after she became a Mexican citizen.

In 1956, she won second prize in sculpture in the Atlanta University annual exhibition and earned a diploma in printmaking at the First National Painting and Printmaking Exhibition in Mexico City. In 1959, she also won an award at the International Graphics exhibition in Leipzig, Germany.

In 1958, she became the first woman Professor to head the sculpture department at the national School of Fine Arts, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Initially, this disturbed some of the male faculty members, who avoided speaking to her. However, she wasn’t bothered by it; she had one major prizes and her work as a printmaker was being exhibited all over the world. Besides, Mexico’s leading artists at the Taller de Grafica worked with her and she had earned their respect. She knew her worth. And as faculty members began to see her effectiveness as a teacher, her warmth and love of people, they came around.

In 1961, in the speech she gave in Mexico City, she rejected the notion that Black exhibitions meant accepting segregated exhibitions. She stated that, “There was a difference between sitting in the back seat because you have to and because you want to.”

It was a speech for the times and it highlighted a significant mind shift for many Black creators and thinkers. As a result, formations of Black artist groups, such as, Spiral, in New York, increased across the country. You might recall that we briefly discussed, Spiral, in the episode on Emma Amos. They weren’t waiting for galleries and museums anymore. These exhibitions were both the protest and resource for Black artists in response to the exclusion from museums, educational and governmental exhibitions that continued to dominate with racial prejudice against Black Americans in particular.

In 1962, Catlett won the Tlatilco prize in the first Sculpture Biennial in Mexico. Two years later, in 1964, she won the Xipe Totec prize. She’s a legend in Mexico.

Catlett being out of the U.S., put her in a place of reflection on the obstacles of African-American artists in the United States from a different angle. She looked at her own experiences and her acceptance in Mexico and Europe. She could relate to their frustration and knew firsthand of their disappointments in trying to cope with oppression, but after learning of the Civil Rights Movement by students in the south, she disagreed with the attitudes of many Black artists. She felt some of their ideas contained faulty logic.

In a 1961 speech, given at the National Conference of Artists, a newly organized group of art teachers in southern Black colleges, she declared that their identity as African Americans and their relationship to their people were critical in their development as artists and in gaining recognition. This speech made folks think, and inspired Black artists to form groups to talk about their particular challenges in the U.S. Some of her philosophies mirrored those expressed by W E B DuBois in 1926, but some were more radical in step with the Civil Rights Movement, that paralleled struggles of colonized people of Africa and Asia, fighting to achieve independence. Black artists were continuously seemingly systematically, overlooked by U.S. galleries and museums.

She made this speech at a time when Abstract Expressionism, was big and artists and art professionals were proud of its complete absence of content. It dominated the American art scene. This popular movement led Catlett to point out that while Black artists in the South lacked a nurturing art environment, Northern Black artists were in danger of completely losing their identities “in the mass of American artist who must say nothing socially or even realistically.” She sarcastically addressed the Black artists working in their non-objective style, saying “they are accepted; they are no longer Negro; they are American; they are now equal.”

She rejected the old goal of gaining acceptance in the industry and urged all Black exhibition to be based on a proud identification with Black people, not segregation because she said, “we are through with segregation.”

Catlett’s prints have been exhibited worldwide, as they were easier to transport than her sculptures. In 1970, she won a fellowship for study and travel in East Germany and the following year the British Council provided a grant for her to visit art schools in England. In 1978, Catlett went to China and the Soviet Union with a group of non-artists. In China she, discussed the work of Black artists in America, and answered inqueries about pop art, op art, and Abstract expressionism.

Her work is in so many museums, including the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Museum of American Art in Washington DC, High School Museum in Atlanta and National Museum of Czechoslovakia in Prague. Her work is also in the collections of Atlanta, Fisk and Howard Universities as well as the State University of Iowa.

In 1975, Catlett moved to Cuernavaca, after retiring from her teaching position at the Escuela Nacional de Antes Plasticas.  Then, eight years later, in 1983, her and Mora purchased an apartment in Battery Park City, New York – a primarily residential area in Manhattan. But Mora died in 2002 and Catlett regained her American citizenship that same year. At the age of 96, Catlett transitioned peacefully in her sleep at her home in Cuernavaca on April 2, 2012.

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Shotguns: A Discussion With Henry Jones III

Shotguns by John T. Biggers, 1987

Today we’re joined by Henry Jones III and we’re taking a deeper look and sharing our perspectives on a painting by John T. Biggers titled, “Shotguns.”


A Fat Slice of Cake: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCubSSuvmvefVB4FPBJi7uIQ/videos

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John Thomas Biggers: I Rejoiced

“Shotguns,” 1987, John Thomas Biggers

John Thomas Biggers

John Thomas Biggers was born on April 24th, 1924, in Gastonia, North Carolina and was the baby of seven children of Paul and Cora Finger Biggers. His parents attended Lincoln Academy; a school supported by the American Missionary Society. According to the book, The American Missionary, Lincoln Academy was a secondary school for Black children with twelve teachers and over two hundred students that served as both a day school and a boarding school in King Mountain, North Carolina.

Paul, John’s father, was a hardworking man who wore several hats. Not only was Paul Biggers a school principal of a three-room school, but he was also a Baptist preacher, a farmer and repaired shoes, all to support his family. Little John Biggers may have also been hard working but was like his mother too, because as he would recount later, she had an artist’s eye and saw beauty in almost everything.

The eldest children were industrious and tended their own gardens. They even constructed their own toys and once, with the help of an older brother, John made a scale model of Gastonia, carving houses, laying out streets and using moss to represent lawns. He would later consider this project to be his first real creative exercise.

Paul Biggers, John’s father, entertained his children with captivating stories rooted in African folklore. These stories were reinforced when he, like his parents, began to attend Lincoln Academy. The principal when John Biggers attended, Henry McDowell, had spent many years in Angola as a missionary and knew many African folktales and proverbs and applied those proverbs to the problems facing the Black Gastonian community.

Biggers’ father taught his children to write, placing special emphasis on the beauty of well-designed capital letters and rhythmical writing. Additionally, Mrs. Blue, his second-grade teacher instructed her students to copy colored photos of birds that came in Arm & Hammer baking soda boxes. I kind of wish they still had that. I buy baking soda all the time.

Anyway, in 1936, Paul Biggers – the principle, farmer, father, husband and reverend – passed away. John Biggers was only 12 years old, and it became urgent for him to help his mother.

With seven children to support, Cora Finger Biggers, cooked for White families and later worked in an orphanage. And to lighten Cora’s load, John and his older brother Joe, earned their way at the Lincoln Academy boarding school. John would rise at 4:00 a.m. to fire boilers in the school’s 11 buildings. His supervisor, helped him to secure other jobs as well. He encouraged the boy to work his way through college.

Biggers entered Hampton Institute – now known as Hampton University – in 1941 as a work-study student. His plan was to study heating and plumbing. Which would be a natural course to take since he already had so much experience with firing boilers.  But as it turned out, one evening drawing class with Victor Lowenfeld profoundly changed his life and goals.

This was where Biggers’ career path pivoted and he began his journey as an artist and teacher. We discussed Lowenfeld briefly in our episode on Carroll Harris Simms. However, Lowenfeld had a big effect on several Black artists. Not only Simms and Biggers but other greats like Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett. Both, who I plan to cover very soon.

Lowenfeld was a psychologist, an artist and a teacher. He studied psychology and the connection with art in Vienna, where he initially worked with the mentally ill, prisoners, and the blind, instructing them to draw, paint, and sculpt. His research concluded that art could be a path to establishing identity and overcoming feelings of inadequacy. Lowenfeld then applied these findings to child development, using art as a tool for children to discover and build their confidence. With the publication of his 1947 book, Creative and Mental Growth, which Biggers helped illustrate, Lowenfeld altered and advanced art education. After arriving to the United States in 1939 as a Jewish refugee, Lowenfeld was hired as a psychologist at Hampton Institute.

So, Lowenfeld took his work from Austria and proposed an art course to help build the confidence of Hampton students, but the administration and faculty were like, ‘Ah nah – these students aren’t interested in art. However, he won permission for a one night a week drawing class without academic credit. There were 800 students, around 750 showed up. The next year, Biggers majored in art.

Lowenfeld’s first course of action was to get students to shift their focus to African sculpture instead of simulating traditional eurocentric modern art. He emphasized the power of African art through religion and its role in societies in various African cultures. With this approach, he began altering students’ views of their own heritage. It helped them redefine beauty in art and bolster pride.

Biggers had said, “African art – in fact, African culture generally- remain devoid of significance in our lives. I felt cut off from my heritage, which I suspected was estimable and something to be embraced.”

Lowenfeld asked students to identify places on campus where they felt sculptures and murals should be and then had them create the works they wanted there. He also brought a young talented artist couple to Hampton – the painter Charles White and the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, the two I mentioned earlier. If the students believed there were no real Black artists, by bringing these two artists, this was Lowenfeld’s mic drop.

At Hampton, Charles White created a mural, titled, “The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy,” which backed up everything Lowenfeld was talking about.

Biggers recalled later, “We stood around him in awe, watching this master draftsman model our heroes and ancestors… John Henry, Leadbelly, Shango and Harriet the Moses.” Biggers said he became White’s, “Unknown apprentice,” and did everything he could to help out.

Biggers made a decision. He was going to be a muralist too. As a student, he created two. One titled, “The Country Preacher,” which showed a traditional preacher giving a sermon that depicted African scenes. The second, was titled, “The Dying Soldier,” that showed a soldier’s death on the battlefield, with his childhood memories floating in the sky. In these, Biggers tried to emulate the eloquence of White.

White, Biggers and Lowenfeld often discussed the Mexican concept of the mural as a tool to inform and remind the community of their history and reinforce pride. Because Lowenfeld helped Biggers recognized the value in the rich traditions in Africa, Biggers said, “I began to see art not primarily as an individual expression of talent.” He said, “but as a responsibility to reflect the spirit and style of negro people. It became an awesome responsibility to me, not a fun thing at all.” So Biggers, with this mission, ignored the New York art scene, galleries and museums that were always so important to so many.

Biggers’ social statement in his work, was an intense focus on the beauty, dignity and value of rural Black people as they navigated their lives and celebrated their planting, harvesting, and community.

He served in the Navy during World War II. Then, when Lowenfeld got a position as head of the art department at Pennsylvania State University, Biggers followed him there and was so moved by his philosophy and influence that he considered Lowenfeld to be the greatest art teacher of the 20th century.

Biggers earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in one year at Penn State, and he also married, Hazel Hales, his Hampton sweetheart. During this time, he worked on two murals in the Burrows Education Building, one titled, “Harvest Song,” showing people celebrating the Earth’s fruitfulness, and, “Night of the Poor,” illustrating the harshness and emotional effect of poverty.

In 1949, in a Houston community center, Biggers’ painting titled, The Baptismal, was exhibited and this work caught the attention of a woman named, Susan McAshan. McAshan was the daughter of a cotton magnate. She became a highly influential Houston community leader whose wide range of passions emphasized human capability through an increase to access of information, education and beauty. She convinced the president of Texas Southern University, Dr. R. O’Hara Lanier to hire Biggers to establish its Studio Arts program. Dr. O’Hara who was a former Hampton president was actually already familiar with both Biggers and his wife, Hazel.

Biggers had seen what starting an art department looked like, yet starting one at TSU in the early 1950s, was still quite a struggle. Faculty and staff were conditioned for practicality and felt art was not a great subject for their students. Biggers’ colleague, Joseph L. Mack, another Lowenfeld student, had been through this same frustrating resistance, suffering for two years of academic hostility to the idea of art programs for Black students at Florida A & M. But even though they had brought Biggers to establish an arts program, Biggers was given a small room with one arm lecture chair and no easels, or sculpture stands. Later, Biggers said he initially wanted to commit an act of violence every time he opened the door.

Though this was higher learning, regular art texts weren’t very helpful because the TSU students, at the time, weren’t prepared very well in English. Instead, they relied on Lowenfeld’s text, as well as Alain Locke’s book, “Negro in Art” and Aline Saarinen’s book titled, “Search for Form.” Biggers knew the students needed to feel like artist, so he had them saw the arms and backs off their lecture chairs paint the walls gray and began designing and painting murals on the walls. He wanted to crack open the students and free them from worry from what seemed standard and encouraged them to look within themselves, their own feelings and their personal histories for their subjects. According to A History of African-American Artists, Biggers taught his students that creativity, didn’t rest in the classroom or in books, but reclaiming of the poetic sensibilities of their childhood- it’s spontaneity, enthusiasm and pleasures.

Oh. The administration and faculty were beside themselves when they found out that the student would be depicting African-Americans. They weren’t buying Biggers’ assertion that Black people were the great caretakers of the earth. They were not yet able to see the value of empowering their students with love and pride of their own history, their own people, their own blood.

He had something to prove. Biggers entered a juried show at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. His Conte crayon drawing titled, “The Candle,” won the Purchase Prize. So the press that came later validated what Biggers was doing. It started changing the attitudes of faculty. However, Biggers couldn’t personally accept his prize though, due to segregation. To further solidify the validity of Biggers’ approach, his painting titled, “Young Mother,” won the Atlanta University exhibition Purchase Prize in 1950.

In 1951, great praise was given to Biggers and Joseph L. Mack for their special faculty-student exhibition by the Texas Senate. In 1952, they created two murals for the Eliza Johnson Home for Aged Negroes. “The Harvesters depicting people picking cotton, chopping wood, fishing and baptizing. The second mural titled, “The Gleaners” was that of people gathered, cooking and quilting. A little later, when Biggers began a YMCA mural featuring Harriet Tubman holding a rifle while leading slaves to freedom, some women in the community got so upset! He was making Black women look bad! Biggers did stop – until people from the YWCA convinced the ladies that this was a good thing – a positive thing – not a disgrace.

Apparently, Biggers got a good amount of press with his work – like a mural he painted at

Carver High School in Naples, Texas, and also another mural at the International Longshoreman’s Association, local 872, in Houston.

In 1957, a UNESCO grant enabled him and his wife, Hazel, to spend 6 months in West Africa, visiting Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo. UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization – a specialized agency of the United Nations. Of the trip, Biggers said, “I had a magnificent sense of coming home, of belonging.”

Anthropologist, such as Melville Herzegovits, had spent a lifetime searching for Africanisms surviving in Black American life, but he did have much success. According to Biggers, Herzegovits just didn’t recognize them. There were ways of doing things that were subtle, such as ways of standing, sitting, walking, handling tools, planting seeds, and weaving. When Biggers saw Africans building, working in the fields, cutting and shaping handles for tools, making shoes, constructing their own chairs, Biggers was excited. He documented his observation with drawings.

He made his drawings into a book, titled Ananse: The Web of African Life. “Ananse the spider is a well-used character in West African folklore, who is cunning and outwits larger animals. A little like Brer Rabbit in Black American folklore.

Many of these drawings were approached with photorealism. Yet, some of them abandoned detail and focused primarily on the shapes of human forms and movement of activities like fishing, drumming and dancing. Biggers also saw the creation of temporary clay and wooden sculptures in the fields, when new crops were planted to encourage in abundant crop. After the harvest, these sculptures were left to decompose and new ones were created each season.

But the trip wasn’t all heartwarming and exciting. Biggers was bothered by how some Africans accepted ” the White man’s image of them indiscriminately,” He was also upset to see that the art school he was visiting didn’t contain a single African sculpture. It was the same cultural oppression he was experiencing at TSU and Biggers would go back home newly galvanized to address it.

After returning to Houston from his West Africa trip, Biggers was asked to create a mural for TSU’s new science building. You might recall that Carroll H. Simms was asked to create a sculpture on that same building, which became his piece, titled, “Man the Universe,” and was inspired by Negro spirituals. Biggers chose to portray life as, “a single great system of activity due to the close relationship between organisms, ” specifically the biological interdependence of humans and nature. Some of the imagery was from his early biology studies, but some was from the concept of Mother Earth’s life force, supported through a central root system with Black women sewing and harvesting among flora and animals. Mimi Crossley of the Houston Post called this mural, “a National Treasure.”

In his mural titled, “Birth From the Sea,” Biggers stretches his imagination. This mural was created for the WL Johnson branch of the Houston Public library. It centers on a Black woman, draped in gauzy material as she stands in front of a fishing boat. Several female figures behind her are dressed in white. They gather on both sides of a fisherman on the right as he casts his net and a large fish creates waves in the background. Another woman, on the left, bends over her work. Biggers compared her to God bending over the clay while making the first man. I think this mural could have totally been a 70’s funk band album cover.

Speaking of the 70’s, in 1977, after suffering the cramped art space that once filled him with hostility, Biggers helped make plans for the new and improved TSU art center. It was a block-long, one story building with plenty of natural lighting, containing large studio areas for teaching drawing, design, painting, ceramics and sculpture.

Before he retired, each TSU art major was required to complete a mural in his or her senior year and wall space was reserved for them in various buildings. Low quality murals were eventually painted over and at one point there were reportedly 50 murals on campus. But after 1983, the mural program as well as Lowenfeld’s philosophy on self-identification, the crux of Biggers’ philosophy, was largely abandoned, replaced with more traditional academic Art School philosophies.  When Biggers found out, he said he was disappointed, but not bitter.

The motifs that Biggers loved to explore centered around harvesting, planting, baptism and other rituals of rural Black communities. Also, he loved telling the story of the root system, the connectors of Black American life to the Motherland – whose children are the Earth’s caretakers.

His murals evoke beauty and allowed us to see ourselves and our ancestors in them. They allow us to be proud of our American lives without limiting the expectation of our capacity.

While he was in Africa, Biggers had said “when I heard the great drums call the people, when I saw the people respond with an enthusiasm unequal by any other call of man or God, I rejoiced. I knew that many of these intrinsic African values would never be lost in the dehumanizing scientific age – just as they were not lost during the dark centuries of slavery.”

Biggers received many life achievement awards including the Creativity Award from the Texas Arts Alliance and Texas Commission on the Arts awarded in 1983; and the Achievement Award from the Metropolitan Arts Foundation and the Texas Artist of the Year from the Art League of Houston, both awarded in 1988. He also received an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from Hampton University in 1990.

Alvia J. Wardlaw curated a traveling exhibition in 1995, titled, “The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room” at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston. This exhibition featured over 125 works, spanning his fifty-year career, including works he completed after his retirement. This show was later made into a book by the same name.

Thoughout the 1990’s, Biggers continued creating murals with his nephew, James Biggers, and Harvey Johnson. From 1997 to 1999, Biggers painted his final murals in Houston, “Salt Marsh” in 1998 and “Nubia: The Origins of Business and Commerce” in 1999.

On January 25, 2001, in Houston, Texas, John Biggers died in Houston, at the age of 76.

This episode was researched and produced by me, Kobina Wright. The theme music was created by Addae. To see images from this episode, go to our website at Thewholeartnebula.com.

Also, you can see a few animated episodes on my YouTube channel, “A Fat Slice of Cake.” If you’d like to support and learn more about me, go to Kobina-Wright.pixpa.com. Each purchase from the site goes towards helping this ship run a little smoother. And if you liked this episode, I’d be so happy if you left a five-star review.

Source Material:

Carroll Harris Simms

The African Queen Mother, 1968, Carroll Harris Simms
Carroll Harris Simms

Carroll Harris Simms was born on April 29, 1924 in Bald Knob, Arkansas. A city that was named after a treeless rocky ridge that served as a landmark to pioneers. His parents, Tommie and Rosa Hazel Harris Simms, previously had a daughter named Margaret, then a little later, Rosa became pregnant with Carroll – but before Carroll’s birth, Rosa’s husband, Tommie, left the family, leaving Rosa to fend for herself with a young daughter and a child on the way. Carroll never knew his father and after his birth, Rosa packed up her two young children and returned to her parents’ home.

Regarding their stay with his grandparents, Simms said, “We were taught to be proud that we were Negroes… that the South was our homeland… that if we got an education, we should stay in the South afterwards and strive to better the condition of other Negroes by teaching them.”

Simms’ great-grandfather, who was a freed slave, astonishingly, became the first school master of a school called, “The Bald Knob Special School for Negros.” It was the same school his grandparents attended. It was the school his mother, Rosa, attended. And so, Simms and his sister attended this heritage school as well.

Later, Simms would recount that the budding flame behind his wanting to be an artist, was partially fanned by observing his grandmother quilting and embroidering – and partially from witnessing his grandfather making roofing shingles with an ax – like carving.

But back in 1938, during the Depression, Simms’ mother, Rosa, was in search for better opportunities for her and her children, so she packed up her babies again and moved to Toledo, Ohio, to stay with a great uncle who was a Baptist minister.

In Toledo, Simms attended Jesup Wakeman Scott High School, where Ethel Elliot, a teacher, encouraged his study of art, even as some members of his own family didn’t see it as such a great idea. Afterall, it wasn’t very practical.

Collaborating with her sister who worked at Hampton Institute, now known as Hampton University, Elliot helped Simms get a scholarship at Hampton in 1944.

Simms later said, “Hampton was a cultural shock to me. I’d never realized Negroes had an ordered institution anywhere. Just to look at the place was to see a beautiful holy city.”

So, it is here, where Simms learned about other African American artists for the first time – artists like Charles White and Hale Woodruff – who you might recall we discussed briefly in a previous episode about Emma Amos.

While studying in the art department, Simms tried his hand in painting on canvas. Of course, he did. He wasn’t really feeling it though. He treated the paint light clay, pushing it around the canvas. And I don’t know how he managed it, but he even ended up accidentally putting holes in the first canvas.

However, he did receive encouragement from Joe Gilliard, though. Gilliard guided Simms toward sculpture and ceramics, and Gilliard himself attended Hampton and was the first in his family to go to college. And after graduating, Gilliard landed a teaching position there at the college which was interrupted only briefly to serve in the Navy.

And just as Gilliard did when he was an undergraduate, Simms resonated with Viktor Lowenfeld’s art philosophy of self – identification and it boosted Simms’ confidence. Viktor Lowenfeld was an Austrian-born psychologist and art education professor who became a faculty member at Hampton Institute (which is of course now Hampton University) in 1939 – first as an assistant professor of Industrial arts, but later, became Chairman of the art department.

Anyway, Gilliard, the ceramics professor who rescued Simms from paint and canvas, also introduced Simms to John Biggers – another notable artist who would become instrumental in future collaborations and educating future generations of Black artists at Texas Southern University. That would come later.

However, when Simms first met Biggers, Biggers was still in the Navy then, but had managed to arrange to go back to Hampton to study and paint.

By 1945, though, Simms began to also study at Toledo University and the Toledo Museum School of Fine Arts, simultaneously. I tried to find out more about the Toledo Museum School of Fine Arts, but I didn’t find much. I did find that the Toledo Museum of Art had a Center for Visual arts that is currently connected to Toledo University. But it was created in the 90’s so… I’m not sure what happened to the Museum School.

Whatever the case, when the museum school existed, a woman named Molly Lockhart McKelvey, who was also a patron of the Toledo Museum School of Fine Arts helped Simms become the first African American to get a scholarship there.

A woman named Alda A. Ashley, who had employed Simms’ mom Rosa, as a domestic worker, hosted his first one-man show in her living room.

Simms must’ve been a really fantastic dude with some righteous karma, because, McKelvey, along with another of Rosa’s former employers, Idine Ayers – who also happened to be friends with the director of Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan – helped Simms get a scholarship to Cranbrook too.

Initially, at Cranbrook, because of segregation, Simms wasn’t allowed to live in the dorm for some reason though he was allowed to attend the school, so he lived in a room over the embalming room of a Black Funeral Home 6 miles away and he was so freaked out by this living situation that, sometimes, he’d rather sleep in the woods then in his own room. Fortunately, some of his classmates were sympathetic to his plight and drove him home at night.  I don’t know if one night they couldn’t drive him home or what happened, but this one night, his friends snuck him into the dormitory to sleep instead of dropping him off and when the school administration found out about it and saw that no one was up in arms about it, they ended dormitory segregation.

He won first prizes in sculpture at the Toledo Museum exhibitions in 1948 then again in 1949. My sources didn’t reveal which works won – unfortunately I don’t have that info. I can say, that at Cranbrook, Simms also met a few famous people. For example, he met the Japanese American painter, photographer and printmaker, Yasuo Kuniyoshi. He also met the Ukrainian American abstract sculptor and graphic artist, Alexander Archipenko and the Nobel Prize winning writer, John Steinbeck. You might recall, Steinbeck wrote great novels like, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.” All this took place when Simms was personally invited to the home of Zoltan Sepeshy, the Cranbrook director.

Sepeshy saw that Simms was a shy guy and nudged him to overcome it while meeting these creatives, because, of course this was a rare opportunity for Simms learn from them. In 1950, a professorship in sculpture and Ceramics became available at Texas Southern University and sculptor and animalier, William Mozart McVeigh, one of Sims sculpting professors, highly recommended Simms.

I think it’s important to note that Simms held a different philosophy regarding ceramics. He considered ceramics equally artistic in value as sculpture and disagreed with ceramics being classified as a craft.

John Thomas Biggers had joined the Texas Southern University faculty the previous year in 1949 and was the founding chairman of their art Department. At the time, most of the Black students struggled to comprehend academic sculptural terms, so Simms used a donut to explain sculptural concepts like volume and space.  And he used the sun’s creation of the shadow of a tree to explain the term, “abstract.”

Simms said later, “It would have been impossible then to communicate with students in academic terms and we would have frightened away art students from the beginning if we hadn’t been rurally oriented ourselves.”

In 1952, Simms took first prize in silkscreen textile design at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. And in 1953, he won first prize in jewelry in Cranbrook’s Purchase Prize.

From 1954 to 1956, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and studied at the Slade, that’s the Slade School of Fine Art, London’s leading art school at the time. He studied under sculptors F.E. McWilliam, a Northern Irish surrealist sculptor; the English sculptor, Reginald Butler and the school’s head, William Coldstream. Please know, that Simms took full advantage of this opportunity and soaked up as much as he could, including institutions outside of Slade.

For example, he also studied at the Royal College of Art; The Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Morris Singer Bronze Foundry, where he worked as an apprentice to the provocative British American sculptor, Jacob Epstein.

In London, pretty regularly, Simms visited the British Museum’s display of Ashanti gold weights and carved ivory, then one day, while examining these works, he was approached by a man named, William Fagg, the Museum’s expert on African art.

When Fagg learned that Simms was an American sculptor, Fagg was elated and began to tutor Simms on African art that day (over tea of course) and for the rest of Simms stay in England. Fagg allowed Simms to view some of the museums uncatalogued collections of African sculptures too.

Of course, these days there is a lot of controversy over this museum having these items in the first place because most of it, was stolen. Another episode perhaps.

Years later when Simms was introduced to an Oba in Benin, the Oba apparently was amused to meet Simms. The Oba was tickled to see that Simms, an African-American, looked so much like him. After returning to the United States, Simms was deeply inspired and created a bronze, titled “Homage to a Shrine,” a two-piece sculpture that contains elements of sacred Benin work. It found a home in the Royal Palace of the Oba of Benin. Is it there today? I’m not sure.

Slade (the Slade School of Fine Art) gave him insight into great European art, which was great – Simms totally appreciated it. However, Simms’ lessons with Fagg at the museum gave Simms greater inspiration and insight into African mythology which he loved. As a professor at TSU, he avoided showing slides of Benin, Ibo, Nok and other African sculpture to his students, initially, because he didn’t want his students to just imitate these works without understanding and developing the creative processes that produced such work. He wanted their art to develop from their individual universes.

He encouraged students to find themselves in the character traits of various animals in African folklore and mythology and pushed them to make symbolic representations of their own characters using the African creatures – free to explore their own insights about themselves, their desires and how they wanted to move in the world.

Over time Simms’ own sculptures became more and more symbolic and abstract, and being very religious, he found inspiration in spirituals and their symbology.

For the Texas Southern University science building, Sims constructed a huge winged aluminum figure that appeared to be moving towards circling planet rings. He described it as a high relief sculpture with conventional geometric and organic forms inspired by certain Negro Spirituals.

Some of Simms’ works were fountains. For example, there is the one titled, “Woman with a Bird,” a 3 ft x 20-inch bronze abstract fountain at the University of Houston; and then there’s “Jonah and the Whale,” a 6-ft bronze.

He also liked to switch it up and express himself through a variety of materials, like stained glass windows in his work titled, “The Doves and the Sacrament,” for a private chapel. He used plexiglass for a mural titled, “Longshoreman,” in Houston. For the Dowling Veterinary Clinic, he created a colorful plexiglass mural of African animals.

One of his major works, “The African Queen Mother,” a 12 ft by 4 ft by 17 ft bronze created in 1968, was composed of symbolic elements from West African folklore. He also designed the circular reflecting pool in front of the Martin Luther King Center of Communications at Texas Southern.

Simms traveled to Nigeria in 1968 to 1969 to experience, for himself, the social and religious significance of African sculpture. He then made another trip in 1973. Here, in Nigeria, he was moved to find that a sociologist, Akinsola A. Akiwowo, of the University of Ibadan and the Nigerian Museum officials didn’t use the word art and instructed Simms to refer to sculpture or pottery as sacred objects or antiquities.

They weren’t called “curators,” they were known as “custodians of tradition and culture” and had the same reverence as priests.

In the 1971 book titled, “African Art,” Frank Willett, another student of William Fagg, does acknowledge the reverence and use of sacred objects but is not so general as to lump all of these objects under the category of sacred.  There were sculptures – for example, brass sculptures that the Dan people created, that were displayed in homes to show off the status of a person or family – as brass was then considered a semi-precious metal.

But maybe these works, weren’t what Simms gravitated to, because he has said, quote, “All of what we call sculpture exist for a purpose. In the United States, we open our King James Bible to find chapter and verses. There when you look at a carving or even at some sacred hill or sacred tree on the landscape you will find the proverbial wisdom of the ancestors.”

Simms identified three major turning points in his development, quote “First the realization of certain permanent values which relate to the integrity of my grandparents inclusive of church folk and neighbors surrounding the environment of my early childhood, second, studies at the Toledo Museum of Art; Hampton Institute; Cranbrook Art Academy and in Africa and Europe third, working at TSU and at the same time being allowed the privilege of creating art for the community.”

Simms was able to see his world poetically and the expression of this world found inspiration from, quote, “As a result of Agriculture: the symphony of folklore – remembering the fable and poetry of the rainbow; the continuity of seasons; the forms shapes and colors of planting and harvest – the carving and tempering of farm tools – quilt making; sewing and embroidery – to wash; to cook; to share in the disciplines of domestic order and during childhood; having learned through worship a reverence for creation: genetically, a search for form and imagery was inspired.”

He retired from teaching in 1987 and returned to England for a new look at the African Collections and work of its sculptors.

One of his deep regrets was that he wasn’t able to set up a foundry at TSU. He said, quote, “I wanted a foundry to teach students how to cast small figures eight or nine inches high so they would understand what their African ancestors achieved centuries ago, but I never got the support to do that and I still regret it.”

Carroll Harris Simms ascended to the ancestors on February 1st, 2010, at the age of 85. Still, his spirit and philosophies lives on through his work, where he found the greatest inspiration through his family who helped nurture a pride for his people. He listened with his heart and eyes to the stories and lessons of his ancestors.

Simms described art as, quote, “The universal spiritual force that makes the dignity, the heritage and origin of Black culture inseparable from all existence.”

Alma Thomas Part II

Scarlet Sage Dancing a Whirling Dervish, Alma Thomas, 1976

It was at Howard University, where Alma Thomas met professor James V. Herring. You might remember this professor from our coverage of the artist, curator and scholar, David Driskell. To refresh your memory, James V. Herring, was an artist himself and founded the art department at Howard University in 1922. Remember, Thomas enrolled in Howard University to study costume design in 1921.

Somehow, Herring talked Thomas into giving up costume design and becoming his first student in his brand spanking new art department. Because of her familiarity with the creation of marionettes and making puppet heads, Thomas gravitated to sculpting and created small statues, heads of children, along with some cubist-styled modern works.

She didn’t just sculpt, she also painted, although it’s been noted in the book, “A History of African-American Artists” by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, that her paintings at the time weren’t anything special. They were very academic. But what was special about Thomas herself, was that she’d already been teaching for six years by the time she enrolled at Howard, so she wasn’t some doe-eyed unquestioning student. She challenged Herring constantly and I don’t know how he felt about it at the time, but he had at some point come to respect this about her over their continued 50-year relationship.

Bearden and Henderson state that Herring was a very knowledgeable and able professor and held very high standards – now, as an artist myself, I’m not sure what that last part means exactly, having “very high standards.” But then again, I’m not part of art school academia.

So, after graduating, Thomas became an art teacher at Shaw Junior High School in D.C. – the same school she had directed the marionette puppet shows. Now, it’s not clear if she was still doing the marionette shows while studying at Howard or not, but it’s been reported that being an art teacher at Shaw was a job she thoroughly enjoyed.

While teaching, she continued developing her own work and continued to paint – a lot of it in watercolor. Her art skills began to evolve, but were still quite traditional. In 1939, Thomas entered work (I’m not sure which) at the Department of Commerce exhibition and won first prize.

During the summers, when school was out and her time was completely her own, she’d travel to New York to see the major and not so major exhibitions at the MET, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other museums in the area.

One day, in 1943, Herring, the same art professor who lured her into his art department and away from costume design, asked Thomas to join him and Alonzo Aden (also a Howard University professor), in creating a gallery – the Barnett-Aden Gallery. According to my favorite source, it was the first private gallery in Washington D.C. to break the color line. Well, Thomas jumped at the chance and became the gallery’s vice-president, deeply involved with discussions about contemporary American art and about which artists to exhibit.

This is when Thomas became entrenched with D.C.’s art circles, other gallery owners, curators and critics. Herring, felt strongly about putting high-quality art front and center, regardless of the race of the artist, regardless of the artist’s notoriety. Of course, with these types of barriers out of the way, it was possible to illustrate how the art of African Americans could stand up in comparison to any other reputable artist.

Thomas was right there when Abstract Expressionism emerged out of the Great Depression and in 1946, Thomas joined the group called, “Little Paris.” This was not a band, this was a group of public-school teachers and government employees who sketched and painted together, critiquing each other’s work. The group was formed by the renowned artist and Howard University professor, Lois Marilou Jones. This group was a cushion of support against the discouragement and dismissal of Black artists that prevailed in the area at the time.

Here, I want to take a moment to say that, it is often reported that Thomas didn’t start her art career until after she retired from teaching in public schools. However, it’s important to point out that Thomas was teaching ART! And before that she was studying and practicing art, which in my school of thought, make her an artist already. If you look at the totality of what she had done before she retired, Thomas was an artist a long time ago! She had already been exhibited in galleries. She was in the Smithsonian… I think it is misleading to start her story by saying that her art career began after she retired. This is just the time she kicked it into a higher gear.

Thomas enrolled at American University in 1950, to study painting with Joe Summerford and Robert Gates. Their work as students fascinated her. According to A History of African-American Artists, Thomas said, “The first time I was there, when they put a still life before me, I tried to paint it just as it was. When I looked in another room… they did not copy anything that was set before them.”

Ben L. Summerford, better known as “Joe,” was born in 1924 in Montgomery, Alabama. Summerford ended up teaching at American University for 38 years. He exhibited all the time in D.C. and also exhibited at the Barnett Aden Gallery where Thomas was vice-president.

Summerford believed that a painting should be constructed of paint. For it was all about color or shape that made painting interesting – not how technical, or realistic it looked.

The other student who inspired her, Robert Gates, was originally from Detroit, Michigan. He also ended up studying then teaching at American University. His watercolors are what first put him on the map.

So, after looking at what these dudes were doing, with all their, out-of-the-box thinking, Thomas began experimenting with abstract elements in her work. This is illustrated in her work titled, “Joe Summerford’s Still Life.” Not only these guys, but she experimented with Cubist elements, like those found in the works of Pablo Picasso and George Braque. If you haven’t heard of Braque, he was a French artist who is credited as one of the developers of Cubism. Check out his work titled, “Violin and Pitcher, 1910.”

At American University, Thomas also studied under Jacob Kainen. He was an expressionist artist and later a curator at the National Museum of American Art.

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Alma Thomas – Part I

The Eclipse ,by Alma Thomas, 1970

Alma Woodsy Thomas was born on September 22, 1891, in Columbus, Georgia. Just to give a little context. It’s the year of the Conference of Native American Chiefs at Pine Ridge. The Music Hall in New York (later known as Carnegie Hall) has its grand opening and first public performance, with Peter Tchaikovsky as guest conductor. It’s the year Arthur Conan Doyle‘s detective Sherlock Holmes appears in The Strand Magazine (in London) for the first time. This is 26 years after the Civil War ended.

Alma Thomas was the oldest of six children and was born with impaired hearing. Her mother, Amelia Cantey, said it was because of a scare she and her husband had during her pregnancy. Because of the scary night when a lynch mob came to the house for Amelia’s husband, John Harris, Alma’s father. The mob left them alone, however, when they realized who it was. John Harris wasn’t just anybody, but a big-time businessman, and one of the most respected Black people in Columbus.

The Thomas family lived in a large middle-class home on top of a hill surrounded by trees, gardens and flowers. Education was heavily emphasized in her the family and Alma had aunts that were school teachers who would invite other educators out to Columbus to visit. According to my favorite source, “A History of African-American Artists” by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, Booker T. Washington popped in every now and then as well.

In the summers, she spent time at her maternal grandfather’s cotton plantation, which was next to his brother’s plantation, across the river in Alabama – who was White.

Alma’s mama love, loved, loved loved bright colors. And painted flowers on black velvet which was a super popular thing in both America and England. Actually, the tradition of painting on black velvet turns out to be an ancient one. It all started in Kashmir, where the fabric was first made. They started off being religious and painted by priests, but then Marco Polo ended up introducing these paintings to Western Europe. So. There’s that.

Perhaps things would go on like this in Georgia for the Thomas’ for a while longer, but the event that changed the trajectory of everyone in the household was the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906.

By 1900, Atlanta’s population was around 90,000 and 35,000 of those folks were Black. That’s roughly 39%. And for the White Elite, it made them awfully nervous – with job competition and their perception of entitlement and all, they worked diligently to expand upon Jim Crow segregation laws. Especially, those pertaining to seating on public transportation and the segregation of neighborhoods.

Back to Atlanta. So, what really got the White status quo up in arms, was the rise of the Black Elite. The Black Elite were moving and shaking and building and voting… They were educated and connected and respected and… feared. It made some people… uncomfortable.

Now, keep in mind, the Black Elite, in general, was not a big fan of Saloons just like a lot of the White Elite, however, a lot of the White citizens started blaming Black Saloon patrons for the rise in crime.  Prohibitionists in the city were all over that. But, if you know American history then it won’t surprise you that, they were particularly concerned that these saloon goers might commit sexual violence against White women.

But that was not a tool to touch the Black Elite. No. Politics became a tool for that, as the 1906 governor’s race instigated the tension by playing to the fears of White folks, each candidate addressing how to keep, or how they were already keeping, Black folks in their place with disenfranchisement.

In addition to the debates of governor candidates trying to prove the others weren’t oppressive enough to be governor, several local newspapers fanned the flames by printing a plethora of editorials, cartoons and stories about the fears and warnings of the threat of Black men to White women.

 I’m going to give you a super-brief account. Okay? According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Saturday, September 22, newspapers in Atlanta reported on four alleged assaults of local Black men against local White women. It’s really important to note here, that none of these reports were ever substantiated. So extra editions were churned out embellishing on these unsubstantiated stories, riling up folks – adding fuel to an already blazing fire. So, then thousands of White men and boys gathered downtown. By evening, the crowd morphed into a mob and then poured out into the streets and began attacking Black people. Hundreds were attacked. The properties of Black-owned businesses were destroyed. Several Black people, men and women, were beaten and killed. The brutality and rioting continued until 2 a.m. when it started storming.

The next day, Black folks began to arm themselves, getting ready for a second wave of attacks. Two days later, on Monday, September 24, a group of heavily armed Black folks held a meeting outside Atlanta and apparently the police found out about the meeting, and was scared that there was about to be a retaliation. The police raided it and a shootout occurred. One policeman was killed. Then three companies of heavily armed militia were dispatched and they disarmed and arrested 250 Black men.

News spread of this event internationally and by the time it reached Alma Thomas’s parents – I know I just went off into the weeds, but remember this is Alma Thomas’s story – her parents were extremely spooked by this. As I’m sure most Black folks were. The event, along with other things, like the quality of education the children were receiving, simmered in their minds, and the next year, in 1907, Mom and Dad packed up the kids and moved to Washington D.C.

Later, Alma Thomas would tell, educator and artist, David Driskell (whose story we’ve covered earlier on this podcast), and said that, before they crossed the Potomac River, their parents told her and her younger sister to take off their shoes and knock off the dust of Georgia, to begin a new life.

Thomas attended Samuel Chapman Armstrong Technical High School, which today is known as Friendship Armstrong Academy, where she excelled at mathematics and science, and had her little heart set on becoming an architect. However, the art room at the high school really got her juices flowing too.

Thomas’s dream of being an architect didn’t seem to pan out, although, at the age of 21, she did create a model of a modern school house that she designed, which was then exhibited at The Smithsonian in 1912.

There may been a bit of a self-esteem issue during, but especially after, high school that prevented Thomas from perusing those earlier dreams. After graduation, she later attended the Miner Teachers College (originally known as, Normal School for Colored Girls – now known as, the University of the District of Columbia).  Here, she experienced feelings of inadequacy. She felt outclassed by girls verbally more expressive than she was, so instead of following her big dream, she studied kindergarten teaching. After leaving College, she then taught arts and crafts for six years at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware, making costumes for children’s carnivals and circuses and staging puppet shows.

According to the research in a paper titled, “Black Women in Delaware’s History,” The Garrett Settlement House was named after Harriet Tubman’s friend and fellow conductor on the Underground Railroad, Thomas Garrett. It was founded in 1911 by the City Federation of Colored Women and offered classes to black adults and children, including a kindergarten, as well as recreational activities.

Thomas had an itch to further her education. She knew she had more to offer than what she was doing, so then made the leap to go back to school to get her Master’s degree at Columbia University. She attended their Teachers College, and her thesis was on the use of marionettes. Here, in New York, she studied under Tony Sarg, a renown German American puppeteer and illustrator who was born in Guatemala, who has been credited for modernizing puppetry. Thomas was fascinated by marionettes because they were able to convey so much uninhibited expression.

After receiving her Master’s, Thomas returned and directed several marionette shows at Shaw Junior High School in D.C. Her goal was to open children up to their abilities and stretch their imaginations.

She seem to really love this brand of theater, but her interests reached a little further. Perhaps it was the designing and dressing of her beloved marionettes, or children’s costumes in Delaware, but at some point, she began to play with the idea of venturing further into costume design. And in 1921, Thomas enrolled in school again to study just that. This time, at Howard University.

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