JOHN THOMAS BIGGERS

(Biography as published in Commencement Program, 12/99)

In 1941, John Thomas Biggers enrolled at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, intending to become a plumber. Luckily for the world of art, things worked out a little differently for the 17-year-old boy from Gastonia, North Carolina.

Today, Biggers is one of our country's most accomplished artists. His paintings and drawings hang in museums and private collections nationwide, and his murals -- including two at Winston-Salem State University, and one in the North Carolina Legislative Building on which he advised his nephew, James Biggers -- are widely considered to be the finest painted by any artist of his generation. Throughout his long and productive career, Biggers has created works that draw upon the experiences of African-Americans in the rural South to illustrate and celebrate the richness of diversity and the commonality of all human experience. He has said, "I'm not a big-city artist telling a big-city story; I'm a southern man telling a story about home."

Biggers was born in Gastonia on April 13, 1924, the seventh and youngest child of Paul and Cora Biggers. Overcoming poverty, racism and personal tragedy -- his father died in 1937 when he was just 13 -- Biggers persevered, and enrolled at Hampton Institute in 1941. There, despite his initial goal of becoming a plumber, he was drawn to art and began to develop his own personal style, a bold synthesis of African and African-American folk cultures with western modernism. One of his earliest and most famous murals, Dying Soldier, was exhibited in a show, "Young Negro Art," in 1943 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Following two years of service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Biggers returned to college and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in art education from Pennsylvania State University in 1948. Biggers spent the next 34 years of his life as a professor of art at Texas Southern University in Houston, where he directed a program that has produced many of America's most prominent black artists, art historians and teachers.

Biggers retired from his teaching post at Texas Southern in 1983, but continues to serve the university as Professor Emeritus, and to paint and inspire new generations of artists. He and his wife of nearly 51 years, Hazel Hales Biggers, live in Gastonia and in Houston, Texas.