John 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
1941, and then was drafted into the Navy in 1943. After his discharge in 1945,
followed his mentor Viktor Lowenfeld to Pennsylvania State University. There he
received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in 1948, and his doctorate in 1954.
In 1949, he accepted an offer to establish the art department at the newly created
Texas State University for Negroes in Houston (now Texas Southern University).
would remain at the University for thirty-four years, until his retirement in
While there, he established a mural program whereby each senior art student had
complete a mural on campus. One hundred and fourteen of these murals remain at
Southern University. His own legacy there is a fifty-foot mural at the student
center, entitled Family Unity. Biggers' lithograph
The Upper Room, from the Multicultural Art Print
Series, is a detail from that mural.
John Biggers is best known for his murals, many of which are in Houston, including
his well-known 1953 depiction of African-American women in American life at the
branch of the YWCA, which served as an inspiration for his drawings of Dicy. He
produced the illustrations for Aunt Dicy Tales in
1955-1956 for his friend, author J. Mason Brewer, just a year before the artist’s
life-altering trip to West Africa. This trip inspired, among other things, Biggers'
book Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa (University of
Texas Press, 1962). Once Biggers had experienced his African roots by traveling
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 recognized these
as some of the strongest works he had ever done, spurred by his intent, expressed
Brewer, to bring illustration to a higher level of art.
In 1990 John Biggers was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree from Hampton
University. He died in January 2001, survived by his wife and sister.