John Biggers

The History of Negro Education in Morris County, Texas

Biggers The History Of Negro Education In Morris County Texas Michael Rosenfeld Gallery 1500 - © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016 © Estate of John T. Biggers
  • John Biggers
  • The History of Negro Education in Morris County, Texas
  • 1955
  • Conté crayon and gouache on paper
  • 80 x 330.8 cm
  • Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York - © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016 © Estate of John T. Biggers

John Biggers made this half-scale drawing for a mural painting of the same title for the school library of George Washington Carver High School, the first African American high school in Morris County, Texas. Commissioned to commemorate the retirement of Carver High School principal P. Y. Gray, whose own master’s thesis provided the work’s title, the mural traces the history of education in rural northeastern Texas. Drawing upon the legacy of American social realist art of the Great Depression (1929–1939) and adapting the color palette and spatial organization used by Mexican muralists (such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco), Biggers’s artistic language exemplifies the history and ideals of community in relation to civil rights in mid-twentieth-century America.

On the far left, a preacher addresses members of his congregation in a farmyard against a backdrop of laborers’ shanties; to its right is a view of the crowded conditions in the area’s earliest one-room schoolhouse; in the center, Principal Gray is at the apex of a busy scene of activity, including education and collective enterprise, such as quilt-making and harvesting. The new school building stands in the background. On the far right, buses bring students to school, suggesting the rallying function of the institution. In this work, Biggers locates the civic values of education within a broader context of African American communal life, proposing a harmonious model of strength and cooperation.

Caroline Wallace

Biography of John Biggers

  • Born 1924 in Gastonia, NC, USA
  • Died 2001 in Houston, TX, USA
John Biggers began his studies in 1941 at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he met his early mentor Viktor Lowenfeld (1903–1869) and studied with artists Charles White (1918–1979) and Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012). After serving in the Navy he followed Lowenfeld to Pennsylvania State University in 1946, where he received his doctorate in art education in 1954. Biggers is best known for his murals on the human condition. An early one (Dying Soldier, YEAR) was shown at the Young Negro Art exhibition organized by Lowenfeld in 1943 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Biggers moved to Houston in 1949, where he established the art department at Texas Southern University. He taught at this institution for more than thirty years. In 1957 Biggers received a UNESCO grant, which enabled him to become one of the first African-American artists to travel to Africa. He visited Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. After his sojourn Biggers created the richly illustrated book Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa, published in 1961, and developed a system of visual icons inspired by African motifs and symbolism. His later work became concerned with depicting matriarchal systems (opposed to European patriarchy) and quilt-like geometry