African-American Artists 2 

Johnson_William_Li'l Sis Book
Biggers_Upper Room

Going to Church, 1940-41, oil on burlap, SAAM

Going to Church, 1941, oil on burlap, Hampton University

“I began to see art not primarily as an individual expression of talent, but as a responsibility, to reflect the spirit and style of the Negro people. It became an awesome responsibility to me.”

Over the course of his long career, Biggers moved from paintings that were overtly critical of racial and economic injustice to more allegorical compositions, but certain motifs, such as the shotgun house that he used as a symbol of black American life, persist across his entire diverse body of work. Biggers drew inspiration from African art and culture, from the injustices of a segregated United States, from the stoic women of his own family, and from the heroism of everyday more

On October 8, 2009, Swann Galleries set an auction record for any work by Biggers when they sold the painting Shotguns, acrylic and oil on canvas, 1987, for $216,000 in a sale of African-American Fine Art. A stellar representation of the shotgun-style houses found in Southern black communities, the painting had been widely exhibited and was considered a culmination of Biggers's work. It had remained in a private collection since being acquired directly from the artist in 1987.

In 1941, Biggers entered Hampton Institute (later renamed Hampton University), where he studied art under the guidance of Viktor Lowenfeld. At Hampton, Biggers also met and befriended artists Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett. In 1943, Biggers’ mural, Dying Soldier, was featured in the landmark exhibition Young Negro Art, organized by Lowenfeld for the MoMA. That same year, his studies at Hampton were interrupted when he was drafted into the US Navy. In 1945, Biggers was sent to a naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, where he became severely depressed. After a shore leave visit to his brother, Biggers checked himself into the Philadelphia Naval Hospital where the medical board declared him temperamentally unfit for service and granted him an honorable discharge. In 1946, Biggers enrolled in 1946 at Pennsylvania State University to continue his studies with Lowenfeld, receiving his BS and MS degrees in 1948. In 1954, he also earned his PhD in education from the university.   read more

Shotguns, oil and acrylic, 1987

At the Railroad from theShotguns, oil, 1988

Four Seasons, lithograph, 1990

Every element in this painting is symblic, both from a religious and african cultural standpoint.

The Upper Room, lithograph, 1984

He was particularly drawn to the creation stories of a matriarchal deistic system, contrasting with the patriarchalimages of the European world. As his ideas and images of Africa melded into the memories of his rural Southern life, his work became more geometric, stylized and symbolic.[13] Quilt-like geometric patterning became a unifying element of his work and color became richer and lighter.

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Jim, 1930

William Henry Johnson

Training for War, 1941-42  pochoir (stencil print)

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1944

Although Johnson enjoyed a certain degree of success as an artist in this country and abroad, financial security remained elusive. Following his wife’s death in 1944, Johnson’s physical and mental health declined dramatically. In a tragic and drawn-out conclusion to a life of immense creativity, Johnson spent his last twenty-three years in a state hospital on Long Island. By the time of his death in 1970, he had slipped into obscurity. After his death, his entire life’s work was almost disposed of to save storage fees, but it was rescued by friends at the last moment. Over a thousand paintings by Johnson are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“And even if I have studied for many years and all over the world, … I have still been able to preserve the primitive in me.… My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually, all that which in time has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition, and which is now concentrated in me.”

— William H. Johnson quoted in Richard J. Powell, “In My Family of Primitiveness and Tradition: William H. Johnson’s Jesus and the Three Marys, ” American Art 5:4 (Fall 1991): 21.

Regarded as one of the most progressive painters of his day, William Henry Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina, the son of an African American mother and absent white father. His early interest in art was sparked by copying comic strips that ran in the local newspaper. He left home at the age of seventeen, moved to Harlem, and, for the next three years, worked a series of menial jobs to underwrite his enrollment at the National Academy of Design in 1921. At the academy, Johnson received numerous honors and earned the crucial support of one particular instructor, Charles Hawthorne. Worried that “the youth’s talent would be crushed by poverty and prejudice,” Hawthorne helped sponsor Johnson’s attendance at the Cape Cod School of Art and later helped to raise money for a trip abroad.

He arrived in Paris in 1926. His friendships with modern artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner and the exposure to the works of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cézanne inspired Johnson to experiment with color and form in ways that transcended his formal academic training. It was during this time that he met his Danish wife.

how the Smithsonian acquired Johnson's works

Black Hair Flag, 2010    at VMFA

“Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man's inhumanity to man.”

As a black woman artist, Thomas encountered many barriers; she did not, however, turn to racial or feminist issues in her art, believing rather that the creative spirit is independent of race or gender. In Washington, D.C., where she lived and worked after 1921, Thomas became identified with Morris Louis, Gene Davis, and other Color Field painters active in the area since the 1950s. Like them, she explored the power of color and form in luminous, contemplative paintings.Lynda Roscoe Hartigan African-American Art: 19th and 20th-Century Selections (brochure. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art)

Alma Thomas began to paint seriously in 1960, when she retired from her thirty-eight year career as an art teacher in the public schools of Washington, D.C. In the years that followed she would come to be regarded as a major painter of the Washington Color Field School.   Read more

"Thomas was in her eighth decade of life when she produced her most important works. Earliest to win acclaim was her series of Earth paintings—pure color abstractions of concentric circles that often suggest target paintings and stripes. Done in the late 1960s, these works bear references to rows and borders of flowers inspired by Washington's famed azaleas and cherry blossoms.


"Man's landing on the moon in 1969 exerted a profound influence on Thomas, and provided the theme for her second major group of paintings. In 1969 she began the Space or Snoopy series so named because "Snoopy" was a term astronauts used to describe a space vehicle used on the moon's surface. Like the Earth series these paintings also evoke mood through color, yet several allude to more than a color reference."

Read more

"Man's highest aspirations come from nature. A world without color would seem dead. Color is life. Light is the mother of color. Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors."—Press Release, Columbus Museum of Arts and Sciences, 1982, for an exhibition entitled A Life in Art: Alma Thomas 1891–1978, Vertical File, Library, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Autumn Leaves Floating in the Breeze, 1973

Orion, 1973

Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969

Alma Woodsey Thomas developed her signature abstract painting style in her late 70s, after spending more than three decades teaching art in a Washington, D.C., junior high school. Characterized by brightly colored, lozenge-shaped brushstrokes arranged in long bands or dense, puzzle-like patterns, the style broke significantly with Thomas’s earlier realistic paintings.

Thomas knew of her contemporaries Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Sam Gilliam who formed the Washington Color School movement, and they shared her interest in the optical effects of color. Yet Thomas’s paintings are distinct in that they were inspired, shaped, and continually refreshed by her direct experience of nature. She studied the hues, patterns, and movement of trees and flowers in her yard and Washington area parks. She was also fascinated by the U.S. space program’s Apollo lunar missions, which presented new paradigms of space and depth that Thomas interpreted in her paintings.more info

Iterations,  2008  combs      VMFA

Unraveling, 2018  info

“Each brick in "Edifice and Mortar" is stamped with a maker’s mark akin to ancient Roman crescent-shaped brick stamps but altered to resemble a Black Power Afro [with] the Italian word for slave, schiavo. The stamp acknowledges slavery’s legacy [and] is meant to make visible the invisible labor of our forebears and remind us the exploitation continues in innumerable ways...If slavery becomes invisible to us it will lurk in the shadows and continue to breed injustice. –Sonya Clark”

details  The space where the mortar would be is filled with hair

Edifice and Mortar, 2018. Mixed media including embossed bricks, mortar, hair, plexiglass, and steel. Courtesy of the artist.

read more 

“I believe cloth is language,” Sonya Clark ’89 said to a crowd of students, faculty and staff gathered in Stirn Auditorium on Feb. 21. “I believe we speak to each other through the clothes that we wear. I believe the ubiquity of cloth is its power,” she said. “We are always in touch with cloth, it is always in touch with us, and by its everydayness, it knows us and we know it.”

He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1963 to 1967 and at Yale University's School of Fine Arts from 1970 to 1972. Hendricks began exhibiting his realist portraits during the 1970s.

While his figures are distinctively specific, they are isolated in an ambiguous space, enhancing the force of their personal presence. Hendricks has taught painting and drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Yale University and retired from the faculty of Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.  

National Gallery of Art

Lawdy, Mama,  1969

Sir Charles, aka Willie Harris,  1972

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Sonya Clark is Professor of Art at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Previously, she was a Distinguished Research Fellow in the School of the Arts and Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University where she served as chair of the Craft/Material Studies Department from 2006 until 2017. In 2016, she was awarded a university-wide VCU Distinguished Scholars Award. She earned an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and was honored with their Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011.She has a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

from her website (bio)

“I was born in Washington, DC to a psychiatrist from Trinidad and a nurse from Jamaica. I gained an appreciation for craft and the value of the handmade primarily from my maternal grandmother who was a professional tailor. Many of my family members taught me the value of a well-told story and so it is that I value the stories held in objects.”

A textile artist, Clark uses fiber and other materials, including human hair, to address questions of race, class and culture. After the talk in Stirn, Clark and the audience walked to the nearby Mead Art Museum to perform Unraveling, in which Clark and participants work side by side to slowly dismantle a Confederate battle flag, one thread at a time. “The intent,” Clark says, “is not to destroy the flag but to investigate what it means to take it apart, a metaphor for the slow and deliberate work of unraveling racial dynamics in the United States.” 

While touring European museums in the ’60s, a 21-year-old Hendricks was so stricken by the lack of black presence in paintings of the Old Masters that he began his now best known work: life-sized paintings of urban black men (originally subjects from his hometown of Philadelphia) in empowered, classical depictions. Hendricks became a pioneer of black portraiture that pairs art history with questions of personal identity and cultural heritage, championed today by artists like Kehinde Wiley. Though primarily a painter, Hendricks credits photography as a key to his practice, which he studied under Walker Evans and often uses as reference to create his stunning, photorealistic portraits.

Read more  

Jack Shainman, who had represented Hendricks since 2005, said in a statement, “He was a true artist’s artist, always dedicated to his singular vision; he was a figurative painter when it was trendy and especially when it wasn’t.”  more info

Hendricks was first a photographer before taking up painting. Beyond his portraiture, he also made distinct works on paper and painted landscapes and still lifes, including an early series of Basketball paintings that explored abstraction and color theory. Throughout his career, Hendricks refused to be boxed into a medium, and his practice is commanding, bold, and without limitations to media or form.        Jack Shainman Gallery

Two Sisters (Susan and Toni), oil and acrylic, 1977

at VMFA   These are life-size, and so impressive when seen in person. Perhaps it is that direct stare!

LINK to Powers' descriptions of all fifteen blocks starting in the upper left and moving to the right. 

There are books about her life, an off-Broadway play, “Quilting in the Sun” has been written and performed about her

Day 10: Barkley Hendricks,


Great video tribute to Harriet Powers  HERE

She was an American folk artist and quilt maker. She was born into slavery in rural Georgia. She used traditional appliqué techniques to record local legends, Bible stories, and astronomical events on her quilts.


She displayed a quilt she had made at the Athens, Georgia Cotton Fair of 1886. Miss Jennie Smith, an internationaly trained local artist and teacher, wanted to buy it, but Mrs Powers did not want to sell it. Later, her fortunes changed, and she decided to sell it to Ms. Smith.

Mrs. Powers regretfully turned over her precious creation, but only after explaining each of the eleven panels of the design, which Jennie Smith recorded. In her narrative about the quilt, artist Jennie revealed why she was so taken with it: "Her style is bold and rather on the impressionists order while there is a naievete [sic] of expression that is delicious." In recent times, historians have compared Harriet's work to textiles of Dahomey, West Africa.

The Bible quilt is both hand and machine stitched.

National Museum of American History   (Link for quilt description)

The first Bible Quilt, National Museum of American History:

Briefly, the subjects are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a continuance of Paradise with Eve and a son, Satan amidst the seven stars, Cain killing his brother Abel, Cain goes into the land of Nod to get a wife, Jacob's dream, the baptism of Christ, the crucifixion, Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver, the Last Supper, and the Holy Family.

The second Bible Quilt,  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

Appliqué quilt, dyed and printed cotton fabrics applied to cotton. The quilt is divided into fifteen pictorial rectangles. Worked with pieces of beige, pink, mauve, orange, dark red, gray-green and shades of blue cotton. This second quilt is thought to have been commissioned by a group of "faculty ladies" at Atlanta University, and given (together with Powers's descriptions) as a gift to a retiring trustee.     

Only 2 of Powers' quilts exist 

Possibly a portrait of Daniel Coker, one of the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. 


more info

Day 9: Harriet Powers,


Day 14: John Biggers,


Mrs. Barbara Baker Murphy, SAAM

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Grace Allison McCurdy and her Daughters, National Gallery of Art

African-American Artists

In thinking about the NMWA #5womenartists challenge in March, I asked myself, "Could I name at least one African-American artist each day for every day in February?" In about 5 minutes I had 22 names, and after focusing, I now have closer to 50, or more. Quite a few have art in the VMFA (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), and many are from or live in or near Richmond. My criteria (as with the women artists), was if I could remember their name OR the work of art.  

Day 11: Sonya Clark, b. 1967

Day 12: Alma Thomas, 


Day 13: William H. Johnson,


Day 8: Joshua Johnson/Johnston, b. 1763, d. after 1826

Joshua Johnson (sometimes identified as Johnston) was the first African American artist to gain recognition as an artist, and to be self-sufficient as an artist in the United States.

He was active in Baltimore between 1790 and 1825; Born into slavery, His father was white, his mother a slave, and then was sold to his father George Johnson, who apprenticed him as a blacksmith, to be set free upon the completion of his apprenticeship or when he turned 21, whichever occurred first. HE was freed in 1782. Light-skinned, he often passed for white, and his patrons never seemed to question his race.

He described himself as a “self-taught genius” who had “experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies.”  There is no record of any formal studies.

from BlackPast

Sea Captain John Murphy, SAAM

In the 1930s he was rediscovered by J. Hall Pleasants, a Baltimore genealogist. He described  the artist as having 13 existing paintings attributed to him, many of the children of wealthy local families. Later the Maryland Historical Society received 3 volumes of Baltimore chattel records, which revealed a lot more information about him and his background. Approximately 83 paintings are now attributed to him.  

There is no record as to where or when he died, after he left Baltimore.

He was listed as among “Free Householders of Colour” in the Baltimore city directory of 1817-1818.

from the National Gallery of Art

“As a self-taught genius, deriving from nature and industry his knowledge of the Art; and having experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies, it is highly gratifying to him to make assurances of his ability to execute all commands with an effect, and in a style, which must give satisfaction.” — Joshua Johnson quoted in Advertisement, “Portrait Painting,” Baltimore Intelligencer, 19 Dec. 1798.

 He owned at least 2 pieces of property, suggesting he was successful in his art. He married twice, and had at least 4 children. 

from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)