Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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The Artist

Photograph of John Biggers by Sue Murphy.

Photo by Sue Murphy
1998.

ohn Thomas Biggers was born on April 13, 1924 in Gastonia, North Carolina, the youngest of seven children. He studied art first at Hampton Institute in Virginia in 1941, and received his Doctorate from Pennsylvania State University in 1954.

While many black artists of his generation left the South for opportunities in cities such as New York, Biggers avoided the East Coast, migrating instead to Texas, a state prospering on oil and founded on the pioneering spirit. In 1949,he accepted the offer to establish an art department at the newly created Texas State University for Negroes in Houston, today Texas Southern University. John Biggers is best known for his murals, many of which are in Houston, including his well-known 1953 depiction of Negro women in American life at the Blue Triangle branch of the YWCA, which served as an inspiration for his drawings of Dicy. He produced the illustrations for Aunt Dicy Tales in 1955-6 for his friend, author J. Mason Brewer, just a year before the artist’s life-altering trip to West Africa. Once Biggers had experienced his African roots by traveling to Ghana and Nigeria on a UNESCO grant in 1957, his art changed forever. The drawings of Dicy were the last commission in his early style. Biggers recognizes these images as some of the strongest works he has ever done, spurred by his intent, expressed to Brewer, to bring illustration to a higher level of art.

The Author of Aunt Dicy

John Mason Brewer (1896-1975) was one of the pre-eminent folklorists of the twentieth century and one of Texas’ most respected African-American writers. Born in Goliad, Texas,the grandson of slaves, Brewer moved to Austin when he was seven. He earned a BA from Wiley College, and, upon returning to Austin, taught creative writing at Huston-Tillotson College. His research took him throughout the South, collecting the oral history and songs that are so integral to scholarship on African-American culture. He lectured around the country at such institutions as Yale University, the University of Colorado, and The University of Texas at Austin.

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