Jefferson Eugene Grigsby, Jr. was a shining example of a modern day renaissance man. He was an artist, a teacher, a playwright, a poet, an essayist, a published author, a lecturer, and a band leader. He was a fierce advocate for justice and righteousness and engaged everyone who crossed his path. He literally walked with kings and queens, yet never lost the common touch. Perhaps, most importantly, he possessed a creative mind that was sharp and active until the very moment he died. This exhibition, Selected Works of J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr.: Returning to Where the Artistic Seed was Planted, offers a glimpse into one aspect of his creative genius — his paintings — and traces them back to their origins.
The thirty works of art included in this exhibition are representative of the entire spectrum of Grigsby’s career. Although his interest in art was sparked as a high school student, it was his undergraduate professor and mentor, artist Hale Woodruff, who had a profound impact on his style. Grigsby’s early works, both Carolina Shacks and Atlanta Shacks, show Woodruff’s influence. In the mid-1940s, Grigsby moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where he spent most of his professional career teaching art and painting. One sees the effect of the desert landscape represented in works including Arizona Flour Mill and Ed and Jo. However, many of the works created after the move – Inner View; Specters; Black, Brown and Beige; Abstraction in Red and Black; Three; The Circus; and 2+Blue=X – were abstract.
Like most artists, the experiences and values that were important to Grigsby made their way onto his canvasses. One finds his strong sense of family reflected in Desert Madonna, The Family, Sisters, The Cotton Family and No Vacancy. And, one can clearly discern the influence of African images on Kuba Warrior, Kuba Kolomo, African Journey—The Bridge and Homage to Bolongongo. After an extended trip through South America — particularly Brazil — Grigsby produced works filled with the bright colors he encountered among the people there; we see that influence in Yamenja and Enchantress.
As with much of Black America, Grigsby was enormously affected by the Civil Rights Movement. The Protesters and other works produced in the 1960s were inspired by that period. In his later years, Will Work for Food along with his final painting, Job Seekers, reflected the growing economic divide and the yawning gulf that exists between the haves and have-nots in our nation today.
Three portraits are included in this exhibition — a Self-Portrait; one of John Biggers an artist and cousin who was a native of Gastonia, North Carolina; and one of his beloved wife, Thomasena, who was constantly at his side. Grigsby would often talk about his Cherokee heritage, a fact in which he took much pride. That Native American relationship is reflected in his piece entitled Three Feathers.
Selected Works of J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr: Returning to Where the Artistic Seed was Planted is a symbolic return to where it all started for him. Grigsby was looking forward to its opening at the Gantt Center last year with great anticipation. There is no doubt that he would be brimming with pride knowing that this exhibit has finally come to fruition — knowing that his works have returned to where the artistic seed was planted.
About The Artist
Eugene Grigsby (1918 – 2013) was born in Greensboro, North Carolina and moved with his family to Charlotte when his father was appointed Principal of Second Ward High School. Growing up in Charlotte, the young Grigsby was fascinated by his surroundings and often tried to visualize how those images would appear if captured on paper or canvas. While collecting money on his paper route one day, Grigsby encountered Walker Foster, a self-taught stone mason and painter. Foster invited him into his studio and there young Grigsby discovered that African Americans could be artists. It was in that studio that J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr.’s artistic seed was planted.
There would be other critical junctures in his evolution. After attending Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte for one year, Grigsby transferred to Morehouse College in Atlanta where he became a star pupil of famed artist and social activist, Hale Woodruff. In the 1950s, after graduating from Morehouse and then earning an M.A. at Ohio State University, Grigsby decided to pursue a doctoral degree at New York University. It was a ten year ordeal that offered Grigsby the opportunity to again study under Woodruff, who had become his mentor and close friend. The program expanded his artistic horizons exponentially.
Grigsby’s doctoral thesis at NYU was a comparative study of masks from the Northwest American Indian Kwakiutl Tribe and the Kuba Tribe of what was then the Belgian Congo. That research journey helped shape Grigsby’s understanding of art from an international perspective and also fueled his lifelong interest in African art and culture.
The final turning point informing his artistic style occurred when Grigsby traveled the world as a Fulbright Fellow. He met artists from Africa to South America; from Asia to Europe; and from Caribbean island nations to Australia. It was his travels that convinced Grigsby to include artwork from all cultures in art education programs and culminated in his book, Art and Ethnics.
Grigsby’s work also evolved with his expanded understanding of the world. He moved from simply depicting his surroundings to attempting to influence them. In his final series of pieces, including Will Work for Food and Job Seekers, he painted the powerless whose hardscrabble existence was the result of the excesses of the “Wall Street Elite”. His work also unquestionably depicted the link between Africa and African Americans and the connections among oppressed peoples everywhere. Grigsby continually plumbed the depths of the links between Native American, African American, South American and African art.
The importance of family was an integral part of much of his work, most likely rooted in his own close knit family. From his signature painting, The Family, to the more jarring piece, No Vacancy, it was obvious that family relationships were not only important to him, they were paramount.
Dr. Marshall Grigsby, Guest Curator