BIGGERS, JOHN THOMAS (1924–2001). John Thomas Biggers, African-American artist and educator, was born at Gastonia, North Carolina, on April 13, 1924, to Cora and Paul Biggers. His father—part Anglo, African American, and Cherokee—made his career as a teacher and principal but also worked as a shoemaker and served as a Baptist minister. His mother was often employed as a domestic worker.
In 1941 Biggers began college at the Hampton Institute, later renamed Hampton University, with the intention of becoming a plumber. After taking a class from Viktor Lowenfeld, a Jewish refugee who had fled Austria before World War II, Biggers began studying art. In May 1943 he was drafted into the United States Navy. John remained at the Hampton Institute as a “visual art specialist” where his job was to make models of military machinery that were used for training purposes. Also in 1943 Biggers was featured in the landmark exhibit Young Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1945 Biggers, who had been transferred to the naval base at Norfolk, chose to be admitted to the naval hospital in Philadelphia instead of returning from leave. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward for observation, and a month later John Biggers was released from the Navy with an honorable discharge, pronounced temperamentally unfit for service.
Biggers returned to Hampton in the spring of 1946 but transferred to Pennsylvania State University when Lowenfeld accepted a job in their art department. While attending Pennsylvania State he received a bachelor’s degree in art education in January 1948, a master’s degree in art education in September 1948, and a doctorate in education in 1954. In 1948 John Biggers married Hazel Hales whom he had been introduced to at the Hampton Institute six years earlier. Biggers taught for a year at Pennsylvania State and a summer at Alabama State University before moving to Houston in 1949 to found the art department at the Texas State University for Negroes (which was renamed Texas Southern University in 1951). In 1950 John won a contest at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for his drawing, The Cradle. The museum, which permitted blacks only on Thursdays, did not allow Biggers to be present at a reception in his honor. Biggers won the Neiman Marcus Company Prize at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1952 for his drawing, Sleeping Boy. The reception scheduled for him was mysteriously canceled; instead a representative of the museum handed Biggers his prize check when he arrived.
In 1957 John Biggers spent six months traveling to Ghana, Togo, Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), and Nigeria on a UNESCO fellowship. He produced a book titled Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa (1962), which combined drawings with narrative text he had written while in Africa. Ananse was a significant contribution to both art and literature because it gave Americans, particularly African Americans, one of the first realistic views of Africa and African culture. In 1967 Biggers was named a Distinguished Professor at Texas Southern University where he would remain until his retirement in 1983. The Art League of Houston named John Biggers “Texas Artist of the Year” in 1988. That same year he received an Achievement Award from the Metropolitan Arts Foundation. A year later, he was featured in the major traveling exhibit, Black Art—Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art, which was presented in Dallas, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Richmond. In his retirement Biggers established a second residence and studio in his childhood home of Gastonia where he had a renewed interest in sculpture. In 1990 he received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Hampton University. Between 1990 and 1992 Biggers painted two murals at Hampton University, and in 1994 he completed drawings for Maya Angelou’s poem, “Our Grandmothers.”
As an artist Biggers is best known for his murals, although he also well respected for his drawings, prints, and sculpture. His influences, including African art and Southern African-American culture, are clearly visible in his art. In the 1940s Biggers portrayed social realism by painting what he saw as a young African American. His art transformed during the 1950s, particularly after his trip to Africa, when he began painting pictures that portrayed traditional African culture. As Biggers aged, his murals became more abstract and symbolic. His works often contained shotgun houses, churches, or railroads, which were symbolic of black culture, spiritual rebirth, and travel. John Biggers died of a heart attack on January 25, 2001, at his home in Houston, Texas. His legacy remains visible in the murals that can be found on the walls of libraries, colleges, and other public buildings in Houston and throughout the South.
Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists: from 1792 to the Present (New York: Pantheon, 1993). John Biggers and Carroll Simms, Black Art in Houston: The Texas Southern University Experience (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1978). The Houston Murals of John Thomas Biggers (http://www.biggers.coe.uh.edu/index.html), accessed April 3, 2008. Alvia J. Wardlaw, The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995).