"I learned a long time ago that self-dignity and racial pride could be consciously approached through art." — John Biggers, quoted in Elton Fax, Seventeen Black Artists (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1971), 282.
Born in Gastonia, North Carolina, on April 13, 1924, John Biggers was the last of seven children of Paul and Cora Biggers. Biggers' father was a teacher, school principal, and shoemaker; his mother was a homemaker. When John Biggers arrived on the campus of Virginia's Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in the fall of 1941 his goal was to become a plumber. During his freshman year at Hampton, however, Biggers enrolled in an art class taught by the dynamic educator Viktor Lowenfeld. It was a course that changed his life. Lowenfeld, an Austrian Jew who had moved to the United States to flee Nazi persecution, had gone to Hampton from Harvard University specifically to inspire young African-American students. In his intense instruction, Lowenfeld encouraged his students to explore the culture of their own people. He introduced his students to African sculpture as well as works by noted African-American artists, including Jacob Lawrence's widely acclaimed Migration of the Negro series. At Hampton, Biggers also studied under African-American painter Charles White and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett. These combined experiences awakened a desire in young Biggers to become an artist dedicated to depicting the lives of African-American people. While at Hampton Biggers also met his wife, Hazel, a fellow student whom he married in 1948.
When Viktor Lowenfeld left Hampton to assume a post in the art education department at Pennsylvania State University, he encouraged Biggers, his protégł, to follow. Biggers enrolled in Pennsylvania State University, where from 1946 to 1954 he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in art education as well as a doctorate. While there Biggers felt somewhat isolated during his early years on the predominantly white campus. During holidays and student teaching, however, Biggers had an opportunity to observe and portray urban tenement life among African Americans in Philadelphia.
In 1949 Biggers accepted a position to establish an art department at the newly created Texas State University for Negroes in Houston. Rising to the challenge, Biggers succeeded in inspiring hundreds of young students during his tenure at the school, which was later named Texas Southern University. While working full-time as a teacher and administrator at Texas Southern, Biggers began establishing his reputation as a major African-American artist of the Southwest. One of his earliest large commissions in Texas was a set of illustrations to accompany a book entitled Aunt Dicey Tales by African-American Texan folklorist, J. Mason Brewer. From 1950 to 1956 Biggers painted four murals in African-American communities in Texas, which was the beginning of his interest in this category of painting. Each a major effort, the murals represented for Biggers the broadest methods of making his art accessible to the entire community. Since that time, Biggers has completed many other notable murals in the South and Southwest.
Unlike many African-American artists who made pilgrimages to Paris and other European cities to study, Biggers decided early in his career to visit the land of his ancestors. He made his first trip to West Africa in 1957 through a travel fellowship from UNESCO. His time was spent primarily in Ghana, Togo, Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), and Nigeria where he was mesmerized by the colorful culture and life of African peoples. Biggers worked feverishly during his initial six-month stay, and produced an enormous body of drawings, paintings, and photographs. An important product of Biggers' African journey was the publication of a book, Ananse, Web of Life in Africa, in 1962. This book of drawings and writing records Biggers' African experience, and was one of the first books to be published by an African-American artist to reflect in narrative and visual terms the writer's kinship with the land of his ancestors.
Between 1969 and 1974 Biggers was severely ill and painted very little. Frustrated and in poor health, Biggers spent the majority of his time reflecting on his past experiences. In 1974 Biggers attended the exhibition, African Art of the Dogon, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which reawakened his creative talents. He began creating new works that were more abstract, emphasizing the basic and eliminating theincidental. He began assembling his large and impressive collection of African art and surrounded himself with tools and crafts of African Americans, family quilts, and gourds—symbols that appear in Biggers' current works, as do anvils, cooking pots, washboards, and geometric quilt designs, reminiscent of Biggers' early years in North Carolina. Biggers has also developed a series of paintings depicting the characteristic "shotgun houses" of the Carolinas. Equally talented as a draftsman, lithographer, panel painter, and muralist, Biggers has been devoted to the portrayal of African-American culture in his work.
Following his retirement from Texas Southern University in 1983, Biggers entered a new phase of creative energy. Today, his career has come full-circle. In 1990 Biggers returned to his roots at Hampton University as artist-in-residence. There he served as model, mentor, and a source of inspiration for Hampton's students, and instilled in his students some of the same principles he gained there many years before. Recently, Biggers moved to his hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, to live and work.Shotgun, Third Ward #1
Shotgun, Third Warddepicts a scene from Houston's predominantly African-American Third Ward community where Biggers lived. Houston's Third Ward is an important historical black community still vital today. Painted shortly after almost five years of the artist's recuperation, the work is a fine example of Biggers' commitment to portraying African-American neighborhood scenes. Shotgun, Third Ward is a pivotal painting in the artist's career, as it is one of his earliest to employ three motifs that became ubiquitous symbols in his later works: the wheel, shotgun houses, and a lighted candle.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)