DALLAS, N.C. (WJZY) — At one point, John T. Biggers aspired to become a plumber. 

Instead, the Gastonia native earned three Penn State University degrees, co-founded the art department at Texas Southern University, and inspired many with his murals.

And now the Gaston County Museum of Art and History will benefit from over 200 pieces of his work thanks to his family and trust.

The Dallas, North Carolina museum recently announced it received two large portfolios, a few framed photos, and a few other drawings.

It’s no ordinary acquisition for Gaston County and its residents. Museum director Ali Pizza worked with the trust to bring the collection to Biggers’ home county. 

“The significance of this gift from the Biggers family cannot be overstated,” Pizza said. “Our museum now has the opportunity, and responsibility, to provide visitors with an insight into the monumental impact that John T. Biggers’ artwork had on the world.”  

The transformative gift consists of works of art on paper, mural sketches, paintings, and a selection of works from the personal collection of Biggers, one of the most significant 20th-century American artists. These are the first pieces by Biggers in the museum’s permanent collection.  

“The Gaston County Museum of Art & History is now equipped to make and keep history alive for our hometown native, artist, family member, and friend, the late Dr. John Thomas Biggers, better known to all of us as Uncle John,” said Ina O. Biggers, widow of the late James Converse Biggers, Jr.

Growing up in Gaston

John T. Biggers was born on April 13, 1924, on West Davidson Avenue in Gastonia’s Highland Community, in a home built by his father, Paul Biggers. The youngest of seven children, Biggers’ earliest creative memories formed in Gastonia. 

Many of the museum’s new acquisitions feature familiar images from his early childhood in Gastonia. 

“We see these early memories reflected in Biggers’ artwork throughout his lifetime,” Pizza said of the donated work. “They appear in the rich quilted patterns that adorn women’s clothing, the repetitive pattern of shotgun houses forming the landscape, and in themes of work, family, and community.”

The Gaston County Museum of Art & History acquired the collection gift on Sept. 18. Since then, museum officials have been inventorying the artwork, documenting the conditions of the art, and planning for conservation before a full display. 

In the meantime, the Board of Trustees is working with museum staff to plan for the exhibition of selected works so that Gaston County and the region can share in experiencing this transformative collection.

Most of Biggers’ work is in Atlanta’s Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Biggers died in 2001 at 76.

Biggers’ national and regional influence 

John T. Biggers’ artistic influence was on a national scale. Museums in Washington, D.C.; Minneapolis; Hampton, Va.; Houston; Beaumont, Texas; and Charlotte (Mint Museum) feature his work.

Not only did his alma mater at Penn State cherish his work, but he founded the Art Department at Texas Southern University with Professor Carol Harris Sims.

“He truly set the standard for visual arts at TSU and championed the significance of African American art and culture through his teachings and artistic creations regionally, nationally, and internationally,” Texas Southern Associate Professor Leamon Green said. 

“Personally, I have always admired his masterful technical abilities, so evident in his drawings, paintings, and murals. The incorporation of symbolic universal themes to relay the African-American aesthetic and experience is another factor of his artwork that I greatly admire.”