John T. Biggers
b: April 24, 1924
John T. Biggers was born in Gastonia, North Carolina on April 24, 1924. The son of a preacher Paul A. and Cora Finger Biggers, John is the youngest of seven children. A painter, sculptor, graphic artist, educator, and a muralist. He established a predominantly Black regional art center, the Texas Southern University in Houston. He attended the Lincoln Academy where he learned African proverbs from a missionary, Henry McDowell who taught at the school for 25 years. In addition to this, his father provided a major influence by telling him stories of African folklore. This became a strong basis for his focus on African culture.
Mr. Biggers entered the Hampton Institute as a work study student. There, he was inspired by an art class taught by Viktor Lowenfeld a psychologist and an artist. Not only did Lowenfeld inspire Biggers life, but those of artists such as Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett, who also attended the institute. Victor Lowenfeld was a refugee from Hitler’s reign. He understood the racial prejudice and oppression. He inspired his students to take pride and see the beauty in their African heritage. After serving in the Navy in World War II, Biggers followed Lowenfeld to Pennsylvania State University. Biggers went on to become the head of the art department. While at Penn State, John earned his Bachelors and Masters degrees in one year.
In 1949, Mr. Biggers created a painting, “The Baptismal”. Susan McAshan, who was highly impressed with this painting persuaded Texas Southern State to hire Biggers. He then went on to establish an art program, which at first seemed a long and hard struggle. He somehow overcame the struggle by encouraging his students to look beyond the walls and books of the classroom. Expand their minds and find other ways to express their childhoods, with spontaneity and pleasure. Biggers and friend Joseph Mack created a mural for the Elize Johnson Home for Aged Negroes, called “The Harvesters”. The mural dipicts a sculptural molded figures that show them picking cotton, fishing, hewing wood, and baptizing. Over the years, he went on to create many murals, most of which he never received payment for, but gained recognition in the black community. In 1957, he received a grant from UNESCO to travel to West Africa for six months.
Observing the everyday life of the African people, he developed a book called Anase: The Web of African Life. Which captured a great photogenic quality to his drawings. After his return from Africa, he was asked to create a mural for Texas Southern University science building called “The Web of Life”. This work is highly figurative and has a strong swirling mass that resembles that of the roots of the cassava , which was inspired by his drawings in Africa. He also helped to design a functional workshop at Texas Southern University Art center for the students. Since, Mr. Biggers retirement in 1983, his works has become more abstract and freer, while still holding their traditional values. An example of this is entittled “Third Way Housing” done in 1985. This work depicts African -American women standing in front rows of “shotgun” houses, which are a part of African architecture and are found throughout the south. The geometric abstractions in this work were inspired by his mother’s quilts. Biggers has won many awards throughout the years, among them was the purchase award for the the drawing called “The Cradle”. He also won The Piper Professor Award in 1964. The Harbor Award for Distinghed Teaching in 1968. He is a member of the National Society of Mural Painters.
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