Multi-discipline artist Jacob Lawrence used his brush to bring African-American life into the art world. Lawrence was the eldest of three children moving around until they settled in Harlem. He found an affection for art by participating in art workshops run by renowned painter Charles Alston. At age 16, he dropped out of high school to support his family by working at a laundromat and a printing plant.
Lawrence kept pursuing art by studying at Harlem Community Art Center and the American Artists School while working at the Works Progress Administration. Following a military stint, he crafted some of his best-known works, including The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Harlem. His most famous panel series, The Migration of the Negro, made him the first Black artist represented by a New York gallery. While working as an artist, he taught at several colleges and universities across the U.S.
In his later years, Lawrence continued exhibiting his work at notable museums while delving into other art mediums. He started the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation with his wife Gwendolyn Knight, allowing young artists to create and study American art. The painter passed away on June 9, 2000, after a battle with lung cancer.
Abstract painter Jean-Michel Basquiat put every avenue of African-American life with a unique style. Basquiat was born and raised in New York with a Haitian father, a Puerto Rican mother, and two younger sisters. He got his love for art from his mother, who encouraged him to draw. That affinity only grew after ending up in the hospital at age seven, reading the medical book Gray’s Anatomy. He attended the City-as-School, where he began doing graffiti under the moniker SAMO.
Basquiat left home in 1978 with a passion for the art world. He tried different artistic endeavors before landing his first public art show in Times Square. His work appeared in several exhibitions before landing patronage from Annia Nosei. He continued exhibiting his work across Europe and the U.S., at one period being one of the highest-paid artists. This period spawned notable works like Untitled (Skull) and Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta.
In his final years, Basquait continued exhibiting his work around the world. At the same time, he developed a heroin addiction, which led to his eventual death at age 27 on August 12, 1988.
Fiber artist/quilter Bisa Butler used her fine art skills to redefine quilting. Bulter was born and raised by her educator parents in New Jersey as the youngest of four siblings. She first knew she had a talent for art after winning an art contest at age four. Her affinity for art led her to pursue her BFA at Howard University, majoring in painting.
However, it wasn’t until she pursued her MA at Montclair State University that Butler finally turned her focus toward fabric art. She began exhibiting her work across the U.S. in the 2000s. At the same time, she was teaching art classes in New Jersey high schools for over a decade. By the 2010s, she began exhibiting her quilt work in various countries, including Art Basel in Switzerland.
Butler continues to craft her fabric art for various exhibitions and other outlets like publishing and filmmaking. Her work is currently available in permanent collections worldwide, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks captured African American life through his lens. As the youngest of 15 children, Parks was born into a working-class family in Kansas. After his mother passed, He moved to Minnesota, where he went through multiple careers.
Parks’ love affair with the camera didn’t happen until age 28 after seeing images of migrant workers in a magazine. The self-taught photographer began taking photos, which led to positions with the Farmer Security Administration and Office of War Information. After working for the U.S. government, he began working for Vogue and Ebony before becoming Life magazine’s first Black photographer. During this time, he published several books and notable photo essays, including “Harlem Gang Leader.” He eventually expanded into other mediums like film and music composition, leading to classics like The Learning Tree and Shaft.
In his later years, Parks continued his photography and film work while venturing into writing and painting. He continued working until his death on March 7, 2006.
Mulitfacted artist and quilter Fait Ringgold used her art to tell powerful narratives. Ringgold was born to creative parents in Harlem as the youngest of three children. Her love for visual art came from her mother to cope with her chronic asthma. She decided to pursue art education at City College, where she obtained her B.S. and M.A.
Ringgold started her career as a painter. Works such as The American People Series saw her travel to Europe and the U.S. before scoring her first solo exhibitions in New York. Eventually, she extended her artistic endeavors into performance art and sculpture, culminating in pieces such as The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro. She ventured into her beloved quilt art until the 1980s with notable works like Echoes of Harlem and Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?
Ringgold has kept her artistic endeavors going by venturing into children’s literature. She spent over a decade teaching at the University of California until her retirement in 2002. The artist continues to work on new pieces with permanent collections at multiple museums.