Dr. John Biggers, an internationally acclaimed painter, sculptor, teacher and philosopher,
The span of John Biggers' life encompasses some of the most tumultuous events in America's history: the Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement. Through it all, John Biggers sought to define a personal artistic style based upon a deep reverence for the blend of African and American cultures with which he lived.
John Thomas Biggers was born in the small town of Gastonia, North Carolina in 1924. His father, Paul, died when John was in his early teens and John, the youngest child, helped his mother, Cora, with the laundry she took in to support her family. Images of washpots and cleansing water would become important symbols in John Biggers' artwork in later years.
John's education played an important role in his decision to become an artist. As a student at Hampton Institute (later Hampton University), John was deeply influenced by the ideas of Viktor Lowenfeld. Rather than teaching from the traditional Eurocentric perspective, Lowenfeld encouraged his students to explore the imagery of their own cultures. By placing value in the legends, art, and music of Africa, Lowenfeld opened the doors to a previously hidden treasure of symbols and culture which would become increasingly visible in John Biggers' works as he refined his artistic style. In 1943 while at Hampton, Biggers' work was featured in the exhibition "Young Negro Art", present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Upon graduation, John Biggers was invited to help build the art department at Texas Southern University, where he served as professor for more than 30 years. True to his own educational background, John Biggers encouraged his students to paint what they experienced in their lives; to develop a style that would help them to express their personal understanding of life, culture, and history. Biggers own works from this time period demonstrate this philosophy. The Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education and The History of the International Longshoremen's Union, Local 872 illustrate Dr. Biggers own dedication to painting the reality of his world.
In 1957, John Biggers was awarded a UNESCO grant to fund a six-month expedition to Africa to study its unique art and culture. Dr. Biggers was profoundly influenced by this experience. The rhythms, legends, history, and cultural traditions of Africa began to appear in his murals soon after and their impact would continue to grow stronger throughout the rest of his artistic career.
Dr. Biggers returned to Houston in 1958. Dr. Biggers retired from teaching in 1983 and devoted himself exclusively to his art. The works of John Biggers features prominently in the history of African American art and is included in private collections and museums at home and abroad. In addition, he continued to paint fantastic murals illustrating the strength and breadth of African-American culture until his death in 2001.
John Thomas Biggers (1924–2001) was an African American muralist who came to prominence after the Harlem Renaissance and toward the end of World War II. Biggers was born in Gastonia, North Carolina and attended the Lincoln Academy, the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), and then Pennsylvania State University from which he earned a doctorate in 1954. From 1954-1955, he was in his hometown, working on the many paintings that are now very well distinguished.
In Houston, Texas, Biggers founded the art department at Houston's Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University) in 1949. Biggers received a fellowship in 1957 from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, allowing him to become one of the first African American artists to visit Africa.
Biggers studied under Viktor Lowenfeld at Hampton Institute, who significantly influenced Biggers in his artistic development. Biggers later created works which reflected his perspective of the anguish that people have suffered merely because of their race or religious beliefs.