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Interview with: John T. Biggers
Interviewed by: David Courtwright
Date: September 15, 1975
Q: Mr. Biggers, when did you first conceive the idea that you would like to become an artist?
JTB: Really, I was really very young, but not seriously until I entered college. I entered college as a student in trades in plumbing and heating, in Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. And there the opportunity was first really given to even take courses in art. We didn’t have an opportunity before. Certainly, we enjoyed and drew pictures and that type of thing, but really, to be introduced to art, …that is “art”, in quotations . .. that happened in college. It happened with Victor Lowenfeld at Hampton Institute and so we switched from the trades to Art. He was the cause of enthusiasm and interest.
Q: You mentioned in your book that he interested you in African sculpture.
Q. How did that happen?
JTB:. In Hampton Institute, it had and still has a very wonderful collection of African Art. From the Zaire – we used to call it “Congo.” It was marvelous! One of the best collections in this country of textiles, sculptures, carvings, and so forth. And he made it his business to give us a very close relationship with this. And, so, in my early training, really the first year that I took drawing and painting, I was introduced to African Art from this source, and the interest started at that time.
Q: When did you decide to go to Pennsylvania State University?
JTB: Well, Victor Lowenfeld left Hampton after the war, after I got out of the service, and I was fortunate to get into Penn State, so I followed him up there. This was the interest.
Q: The war interrupted in your, your studies?
JTB: Yeah, for two-and-a-half years I was in the U. S. Navy.
Q. When you completed your education, did you immediately begin practicing art to become an artist?
JTB: Yes. In 1949 I left Penn State and came directly to Houston, Texas, to this school, and I’ve been here ever since.
Q: Now In this period from 1949 until 1957 when you went to Africa, how would you describe your style at the time? What media did you work in?
JTB: Well, we came here with a very definite program. We felt there was sort of a desert, an __?__ environment, culturally speaking. I had a very rich experience at Hampton Institute and also Lincoln Academy, my high school days at Lincoln Academy. It was in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, an AMA School. And here we didn’t have visual arts, but we did have a __?_ house in agriculture. But it was a center where international and national speakers, and artists, musicians, mainly, came. Each summer they had international and inter-racial conferences at King’s Mountain, North Carolina. This was a very rich experience. I was a work-student there, and I worked all summer and - but I was exposed to these things very early. Our principal was a Doctor McDonald [?] who had spent about twenty years in Africa, and he gave us a daily diet of the very wonderful concepts of Africa which was different from what you got in the movies and daily through the popular mediums. We got a very dignified and wonderful concept of what Africa was all about. He was a minister as well as a educator, and in his sermons he used African proverbs and African philosophy, you see, so we had an understanding about Africa very early that was different from the average kind of information that was being moved around through popular media.
Q. But you found none of this in Houston, when you first came?
JTB: Part of the reason that I came here was because Doctor Lanier was president at that time. He had also been Dean at Hampton Institute.
Q. It all fits together.
JTB: It was very interesting how this happened. Mrs. McAfee [?], who is a person who supports the arts in Houston. They had supported this Hester House in the fifth ward here in Houston. It was a center, you know, sort of an educational center to give pride to youngsters, a class, and that type of thing. It had an art exhibit there. Some way or another I got invited to exhibit, so I sent some of my work there. And they were looking for somebody to come to this school. And Dr. Lanier, from this exhibit, he sort of got in touch with me some kind of way, and it came about that way.
Q. Had you anticipated coming to the Southwest at all, or were you thinking of going back to North Carolina?
JTB: Oh, I had always thought about going back home. That was a sort of a part of our philosophy, a philosophy that we had received at both Lincoln Academy and Hampton Institute: to go back to your roots and do something, something to improve your own environment. And there was a longing to do that now still, even today, I still have that quality or feeling or longing to go back. Even though the man from Asheville says that you can’t go home again, maybe we always try, some of us. But, anyway, but in Houston, I felt that a great opportunity presented itself. Now, I did not understand before I came. I was disappointed because, having studied about the Mexican painters and having admired them through my student days, I felt that I thought that Texas, being next door to Mexico, some of these influences would be here. I was very disappointed when I came and they were not here. I was very disappointed when I came and the Mexican-American people seemed not to know about their own culture. I mean the Mexican culture across the border. Because the murals and the Riveras and Tierras[?] and Orozco. I thought that because my interest was this, I thought that here would be some sort of influence. But when we did not find that, and part of our program was to deal with this kind of thing in our environment, regardless of where we would be, you see? So, murals and art was not a part of the environment. And so we got busy. And there were public places, and one of our first jobs was the Eliza Johnson Home for the Aged. And so we painted murals there and Simms did a big sculpture. This was sort of a launching of our thing in the community. Peter Hurd, who was out there painting in the Prudential Building, he would visit us when we were painting. We would visit him. This was a very interesting time. The Contemporary Arts Museum opened out on West Dallas, we had a very close relationship there. We even had some exhibits very early at the Contemporary Arts Museum on the faculty and students out here. So we received encouragement from the patrons and the city, and there was a great need. And so it was a nice place to be.
Q: But even today one does not see a lot of murals in Houston. Does it disappoint you sometimes that with all these slick skyscrapers rising that architects don’t pay more attention [unintelligible]?
JTB: Well, yes. I was very – at first I always dreamed that there would be great murals painted in Houston. This was part of my first let’s say my first twenty years of would what I would call my idealism of youth. For the past six years, I look at reality. I don’t think that would be a part.
Q: [unintelligible] some of the contributions made by Mexican artists like Leo Tanguma here?
JTB: Well, yes. I know Leo Tanguma’s work, and we were all very delighted when he started painting. He has relationship here with us. He’s worked out here with us. We were happy to see he and his group doing murals and this kind of thing. As I said, you know, it was sort of like a dream coming true after twenty-five years to see this kind of thing.
Q: Do you personally spend much of your time now on murals or have you shifted to other media?
JTB: I stay interested in murals, and it is probably one of my major interests. My students do murals on our campus here, and we use our buildings on our campus as our laboratory. And so, each semester we’ve got something going up. You know, it’s student work, sometimes they’re good and sometimes they aren’t, but nevertheless, it’s exciting to me. I’m involved again. I was ill for about four years, but I’m back at work now, and I’m designing murals for two buildings at the present time, and it’s very good to be doing this again.
Q: Would you tell us what buildings those are?
JTB: Yes, the Student Union Building on our campus, and for the library branch that’s here near the Capitol over here on, across from the Public School Stadium on Scott Street.
Q: I’d like to ask you now about your 1957 trip to Africa, which you once described as the most significant event in your life? Do you still feel that way?
JTB: Yes. I still feel that way. It is the most significant event. When I thought I was going to die a few years ago I told my wife that, well, I can die with ease because I thought I had accomplished the one major thing and that was to go to Africa. It was a tremendous experience. All it takes was patience and sometimes I felt that I had been there before. Other times, it was always a very positive experience in every kind of way. We really enjoyed participating to whatever extent we could or were allowed, with the traditional culture with African peoples. We spent most of our time in the country. People call it “bush,” you know, that’s a name sort of like the hunter. I don’t care for that name for the country people because country people have a great traditional culture. And these cultures are all over the country. They are beautiful. They have endured. They have endured all sorts of historical problems and events, and this kind of thing. I think this is why they are so beautiful is because they have a universal quality about them. It is out of this kind of experience that people who live close to the Earth and, yet, whose idealism, you know, is just as far-reaching as any can be. And I found, really, a tremendous motivation and some peace. And we returned in 1969 to Africa and visited some of the same people after twelve years and in some respects it was like a homecoming time.
Q: But it had also changed.
JTB: Yeah, it had changed, to [?] changed. It had changed from what seemed like an young, inspiring country to a country that had developed some cynicism and pessimism and this kind of thing. But, yet, the country people haven’t, and this is what I liked. It was sophisticates, political politicians, these are the people that have become cynical and this type of thing. Not the country people. They go on, They go on. They’re part of that stream. It was the same people that we enjoyed meeting in East Africa. It is from the Earth, you know, that I received motivation for the common thing that I do. And this is why it will always be a great source of inspiration to me.
Q. In comparing the two visits, was this second experience more of a disillusion?
JYB: No. It was a bit different experience. I find a tremendous awe, awesomeness in it, in a different way. The grandness of Ethiopia, its age. It agedness was very different from that of some other things we had experienced. But then I saw some things where there was a common thread, and the common thread that I was looking for. In Sudan and Ethiopia and in Egypt I saw these common threads. This is what I really enjoyed. No, this did not disillusion me. No, I was entirely motivated. Again, it was such an inspiring kind of thing, I’m just now getting to a place where I can have what I experienced and that was in ‘69. And now I’m working. I’m working! My work comes from this source: from many of the things that I enjoyed at that time and experienced. I’m able now to focus on it, too. I think I’ve digested it, and I’m working from those experiences.
Q: I have one specific question on this point. How many of the sketches that you made originally in 1957 have you turned into paintings?
JTB: Oh, not too many because really I’m not, I do not consider myself a painter. I do some things in color sometimes. I did a few pictures. I want to do some other things, and I won’t be turning those things into paintings. But I am greatly inspired to do some painting one day. Again, you see, the earth to me is color. The earth of Africa, and earth of the south, the part of the south land stretches from Texas all the way to Virginia the structure of the Earth is almost the same. And I went vastly over this earth myself. And so this was a part of a familiarity. Of course where one walks and where one lies down, if you feel comfortable, this has to do with identity, you know, so…
Q: Would you encourage all black artists to have the same experience that you did: to go to Africa?
JTB: No, I would just say that each must do what he feels he must do. You know there are many, many roads leading to one’s identity. I think that identity is important. But I think that one has to choose his own route. I think that all roads may lead to Africa. [laughter]
Q: If a young black artist in Houston resolved to go to Africa, are there any established institutional means in which he could obtain finances?
JYB: No more than the regular means that is provided by the government and by private foundations. I don’t know of any other. I was fortunate to get a UNESCO grant on the first trip. And I had an award from the Daniel Foundation, and that’s where I went on the second trip, how I went on the second trip. I didn’t know it was going to come that way. I had always wanted to go to Africa, you know, and this is how it was done. I didn’t know how it would be done, you know. But we didn’t have the means then that we have now, and you can go anyplace that you want to and pay it on time, you know. So, why not? I would do it today. You see, if I didn’t have this means. If I hadn’t had the means, I would do it now because I would pay for it just like you pay for a car. And why not?
Q. Approximately what percentage of the students that you have worked with here at TSU eventually do make the trip?
JTB: Well I feel that a great number of students here probably want to make the trip, and a number of Texas Southern University students, I don’t mean just art students, have made the trip. The University has an established relationship with Africa. I don’t work in that program. I don’t know the details, but somebody’s going to Africa almost all the time from Texas Southern University. So it isn’t a land that is far away. It is within reach of almost everyone. We have many African students, too, on our campus. There are many, many African students. There’s hardly a class on our campus that doesn’t have an African in it.
Q: What seems to be the major interest of your art students now? What area do they seem most interested in?
JTB: Most students are interested in finding something as a career artist, I simply mean this, as another means of teaching. People want to do something. They want to do their art. They are seeking jobs in commercial establishments of all kinds. And this is what they want. To the degree that they are being absorbed in industry, I don’t know. I can’t offhand say that. I just don‘t know.
Q. They’re commercially oriented, then.
JTB: No, but you know for a person who is sensitive and who has real talent, that talent can be used. I think that’s the best talent to sell something. No, we are not commercially orientated. Our program is still a basic, traditional program in studio art and art education. But, our feeling is that, if one is an accomplished person in these areas, then one is ready to do any of this other business.
Q. Would you briefly describe the curriculum?
JTB: Yes. We have two five-year programs here: one in Art Education and one in what we call Applied Art or Studio Art. Today we have around ninety six majors, they’re about equally divided into two groups: half of them in studio art and half of them in art education. Our program, really, is about the same as any program in the country, where we give them a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree and a five-year Bachelor of Art Education Degree. There are two degrees. We don’t give a B. A. Degree. And so, in both programs our students take a lot of studio work because we felt this was necessary to people to learn to do something and learn to do it well rather than to learn a smattering of something and then go in to the classroom and try to teach something from a smattering. And our attitude was that they should become competent even if they are going to be teachers. Maybe they should be more competent than the person who is going the other way because they have tremendous responsibility.
Q: I’d like to talk to you for a moment now about the market for black art in Houston, say that someone who goes through the courses, in five years he’s out. How much of a chance does he have to sell his work in Houston?
JTB: I would say this offhand. You know, again, that I’m not a person that’s involved in that aspect. Teaching is my major interest, and at this point in my life I don’t even have an agent yet, you see, so I haven’t been involved in the commercial aspect. Now, I’m not saying – I may have an agent soon.
Now, to answer your question. I believe that if an artist is good, and he’s creative, he’s competent, and he’s really doing the work and, let us say, you know, that really has real imagination and freshness, I think that there’s a market here for his work. We have one student who is very popular. I mean ex-student. Clement [?] Oliver has been exhibiting and working out of some gallery in town for some years. I think he stays busy. I don’t know that, but I think he does. I, myself, can sell everything that I do. But you know this is not my motivation. That is not my ball game. However, with so much disillusionment with problems in education and the rest, I look forward to retiring. So, I may do a better job of answering that question two or three years from now.
Q.: Do you know off-hand if there any galleries in the city that specialize in black artists?
JTB: No, I don’t. No, I don’t! . . . .
Q: Vivian Ayers, hasn’t she got a studio?
JTB: I’m sure she has a gallery. I don’t know if whether she specializes in artists at this time. I’m not sure. I don’t know.
Q: In 1970 you were appointed to the Texas Art Commission for a six-year term, I believe. Has that Commission taken any active steps to aid black artists in Texas?
JYB: I’m sure that it has. Money is given to institutions and to groups. Now to what extent, I don’t know that. Black artists have the same opportunity to apply for this money as anybody else. Now, I know that when Holcombe got the Black Art Center in the Fifth Ward. It was called Hope at one time. The institution was called Hope. I was a part of the Commission when they applied for help. And they got some help. I don’t remember now the amount. They got help beyond just the money because there was interest, there was contact and there was some other, you see. You must have all of this kind of assistance to get a program going, and I do know that the Commission assisted them in some ways. I’m sure that other black institutions received the money and help from them. I can’t right now tell you how much or to what extent. I don’t know that. I do know that there wasn’t that much money to help anybody, though. The money was very scarce, you know.
Q: That’s not surprising. How about other private philanthropists in Houston – have the Menils been generous?
JTB: We have had, I think, genuine interest and support from many, many friends of art in Houston. Actually, I don’t think we would have survived if we hadn’t. And I think that the reason why we have been able to do the things that we’ve done to the success of our program is because of the interest of friends of art. I feel very positive in this regard.
Q: Would you care to single any out?
JYB: Well, earlier I did. I spoke of Mrs. McAfee.
Q: Right. That’s what brought it to mind.
JTB: There have been a number of people. I don’t know how popular it is to go around calling people’s names. Some people don’t want to be known, you know, so I don’t . . . Certainly Mrs. DeMenil has shown great interest in our development through the years. And there have been many other people, too.
The book that you have there. You have one book there, and it was sponsored by Mrs. McAfee[?]. You see, this was part of the Blaffer Series. We’ve received support and interest from [unintelligible]. . . .Mrs. Jane Owen has certainly helped us as devoted artists. There have been many, many people, and that’s why I didn’t want to get into the business of saying people. And this would be unfair to all those who have because. . . .You see, the Museum of Fine Arts has been a supportive agent for us. We have participated in all kinds of exhibits there. You see, support comes from many ways, and I would like to say that with these fine individuals there have been many, many people in Houston that have supported us. I think that I would submit hard feelings. . . . I even remember the days many, many years ago that the late Mrs. Hogg. She came here and looked us over. And that certainly gave some support.
Q.: That’s unbelievable approval!
JTB: Yes. We’ve had very good publicity from the newspapers. The source, it is very wide and very complex: most of the people on the Commission, the University of Texas Press and the literary organizations of Texas. . . . Oh, there are so many institutions and individuals. This would make a long list!
Q: Right! Well, you said you had to meet your wife at twelve, and it’s going onto ten to. So we’re going to have to terminate the interview, at least for now.