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J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr.
Image credits: T. M. Noel
Jefferson Eugene Grigsby, Jr. (1918 – 2013) 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.
Eugene Grigsby 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