“I’m not a big-city artist telling a big-city story; I’m a southern man telling a story about home.”
—John Biggers (1924 – 2001)
The Presentation of THE BIGGERS MURALS
The Biggers Mural Project was conceived in August, 1988, when Winston-Salem Delta Fine Arts, Inc., visited John Biggers at his studio in Houston to select works for a major exhibition of his work which DFA was planning for February, 1989. While there, we had an opportunity to see some of the murals which Dr. Biggers had completed both at Texas Southern University and in the city of Houston. We were impressed with these murals as we were with all of Dr. Biggers’ other work. After learning that he had been responsible for more than 100 murals during his 47-year career, but had not painted one in his home state of North Carolina, DFA decided to undertake this mural project for Winston-Salem.
Our retrospective exhibition of 41 paintings, drawings, and prints by John Biggers took place February 11- March 9, 1989 in Winston-Salem. DFA received assistance from Urban Arts in this exhibition. In the week following the opening of the exhibition, DFA proposed that John Biggers be asked to paint a mural for Winston-Salem State University, which would become the seventh gift of art to the University by DFA, all by nationally known African-American artists born in North Carolina. After discussions involving DFA, John Biggers, and Dr. Cleon Thompson, WSSU’s chancellor at the time, it was decided that the atrium of the new addition to the O’Kelly Library, then under construction at the University, would be the site of the mural project. John Biggers agreed to paint two murals and to undertake and direct this mammoth project. John Biggers presented the preliminary sketches for the murals to DFA in May, 1990. Painting began in July, 1990. The murals are painted on canvas, custom-made for the for project; three 5 by 30 foot strips of canvas were sewn together to make the 15 by 30 foot canvas for each mural. Each canvas is attached to a custom-made base wall which, in turn, is attached to the atrium wall. The made base walls and the frames for the murals were provided by the University. The scaffolding and lifts which the muralists used were provided to the University by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Prime Equipment Co., Winston-Salem State University Foundation, Inc. and Coors Brewing Group.
The murals hang on two vertical walls in the atrium of the new addition to the library, designed by the Gantt-Huberman architectural firm of Charlotte. The two murals represent an integration of knowledge from many academic disciplines. African mythology and folklore have been fused with mathematical concepts, scientific theories, literary extracts, American historical events, sociological patterns and religious beliefs. Through the dramatic images are characteristically African and/or African-American, the messages contained in each mural are universal and speak to all humanity. The people, colors, shapes, patterns, objects, and animals in the murals have multiple meanings and symbolism.
The “Origins” mural on the west wall addresses man’s continuous quest to understand the forces behind the beginning of life. The “Ascension” mural on the east wall interprets the experiences, hopes, suffering and joy of living in America. As this was a public art project, the public and the WSSU students were able to visit the library to view the artist at work and to track the progression of the murals. The murals were featured on the January 27, 1991 arts segment of the CBS program “Sunday Morning”.
The commissioning of the murals was made possible through New Works grants from the North Carolina Arts Council; a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Art in Public Places Program; and the efforts and contributions of DFA. John Biggers, one of the leading artists in America’s history, is internationally known as painter, muralist, illustrator, sculptor and educator. A native of Gastonia, North Carolina, he studied at Hampton Institute (University) and at Pennsylvania State University, where he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. He established and chaired the Department of Art at Texas Southern University in Houston for 34 years before retiring in 1983. In 1988, he was recognized as the Texas Artist of the Year. In 1957, Dr. Biggers was awarded a UNESCO Fellowship for a six-month study of traditional cultural patterns in West Africa. This study resulted in his book, “Anase, The Web of Life in Africa”, which received the Dallas Museum Best Texas Book Design Award in 1962 and Excellence of Design Awards in the Southern Book Competition and Chicago Book Clinic Show in 1963. His solo and group exhibitions, awards and mural commissions were numerous. Dr. Biggers was assisted in the mural project by his nephew, James Biggers nephew, also a native of Gastonia, an artist and Coordinator of Arts Education for the Gaston County Schools.
In 1996, The Art of John Biggers: View From the Upper Room opened at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, it marked a rare occurance for the State’s premier art museum. While the NCMA has presented works of African-American artists in the past, only once before has it mounted a retrospective of the work of a living black artist.
This spectacular exhibition, which was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Hampton University Museum, looked at five decades of the North Carolina native’s art.
On January 28, 2001, Dr. John Biggers died leaving behind a body of work that, as Maya Angelou stated, “leads us through his expressions into the discovery of ourselves at our most intimate level.”