In 1946, Biggers left Hampton for Pennsylvania State University where he studied under Lowenfeld and eventually obtained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees – as well as marrying Hazel Hales from Hampton! Here he also found happiness.
In 1949 he established an art department at Texas Southern University for African-Americans and used murals as his teaching method, depicting scenes from rural African American workers’ lives and shifting his style away from realism towards African culture and symbolism.
Early Life and Education
Long before the Civil Rights movement brought attention to African-American cultural roots, Biggers was crafting archetypal images of black life. From an early age he showed an interest in art by copying religious illustrations from his father’s Bible, which led him to enroll at Virginia’s historically black Hampton Institute with plans to become a plumber – however after taking an evening drawing class with Viktor Lowenfeld as mentor and advisor his interests quickly switched towards art instead of plumbing.
Lowenfeld, a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi persecution before World War II, attempted to change Biggers’ perceptions of his heritage through art studies. Biggers first gained recognition when his Dying Soldier mural was included in New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking exhibition Young Negro Art in 1943.
Biggers had intended to become a plumber but decided on art classes at Hampton when he took a class from Viktor Lowenfeld, a Jewish refugee who inspired his students to embrace their African heritage and create art from within themselves.
Bigger first gained national acclaim when his work was included in the groundbreaking Young Negro Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943. Drafted into service, but due to his art he was released early from duty owing to recognition.
Biggers moved on to teach at both Pennsylvania State University and Alabama State University before making Houston his new home to establish the first art department at Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University). His UNESCO fellowship allowed him to travel throughout Africa which profoundly shaped his drawing and painting style.
Achievement and Honors
Biggers’ life and art were profoundly consequential for African American communities and America at large. He moved to Houston, Texas in 1949 as chair of a newly created art department at an all-black university; while there he created numerous murals.
Biggers’ work began to draw the interest of community leaders such as Hazel McCoy. She helped him establish the arts program at TSU.
Viktor Lowenfeld encouraged Biggers to join him at Penn State, and in 1946 Biggers earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees under Lowenfeld at Penn. As part of this period his painting, Dying Soldier, was featured at the Young Negro Art exhibition held at Museum of Modern Art in New York – marking an early beginning in demonstrating Black artists could create art.
Biggers was an amazing family man with an affinity for nature and an infectious sense of humor who could make anyone’s day brighter. He cherished all animals – particularly cats – and will be greatly missed by family and friends.
Bigger’s work often had strong political undertones, reflecting his feelings on African Americans’ plight and informing viewers of its significance. Murals offered Bigger an avenue for conveying cultural heritage and identity with its enormous scale and scope.
Biggers was initially trained in conventional art and his early works featured social realism. Following a UNESCO tour to Africa, however, Biggers began incorporating African abstract elements into his pieces, revolutionizing his style. He adopted this approach throughout his career; helping establish Houston’s Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University) art department before teaching there for over thirty years himself.
Biggers’ work celebrates African and African American humanity in ways both universal and particular. He found inspiration for his art from both Africa’s stories and folklore and from injustices he witnessed within segregated America – both personally and through family histories.
Learned to draw using social realist narrative painting at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). He studied under Viktor Lowenfeld, later becoming friends with mural painter Charles White.
Paul Biggers was a man of many talents; serving as principal of his three-room school, Baptist minister, farmer, shoe repairman and shoemaker (as was Biggers himself). Cora Finger Biggers created toys, dolls and embroidery work which inspired creativity within Biggers himself. Her hardworking nature and storytelling inspired Biggers himself.