A Conversation with Artist and Teacher, Dr. J. Eugene Grigsby Jr.
Artist Eugene Grigsby born in 1918 has taught at Arizona State for 20 years and spent two decades teaching in Phoenix public schools.
- What are the ideas or points of view that you’ve wanted to communicate in your paintings? I don’t know what I am communicating really until the paintings is done. While I am working I am concentrating on design and how to cover a white canvas or paper. Using themes or patterns that I’ve found in African Sculpture or fabrics I wait until I’m done to see what’s there in terms of a social nature.
- Is there any one of your paintings that you feel epitomizes your thinking about art? The “Family” it represents design as well as a family which is an integrated family and is pulled together with design of faces and figures influenced by the art of the Kuba people of the Congo. This is a multiracial family, White mother, Black father and bi-racial children, a situation that was seen as illegal not long ago in this country. It is not lost on me that this portrays the family of some one who may become the President of the US.
- Is there anyone, who’s work you appreciate and that you feel is communicating along the same line? Rip Woods and Samella Lewis, who has written several books on Black/African American Artist and was the founder of International Review of African American Art, which has been taken over by Hampton University.
- You’ve spent a long time teaching and training young artists. Do you feel that your ideas/methods, what and how you taught, are being carried forward by new instructors? I feel that my major contribution is that of teaching more so then in my art. Many of my students have gone on to teaching art and have been, I believe, influenced by my teaching and method of teaching.
- Tell me about your teaching method? I’ve worked with my students on all aspects of their creativity. Each of my students was a class, meaning if I had ten students in one room I approached this as if I was teaching ten classes, because each student could be doing something different and with a different ability level. Some students would be working with jewelry, fashion design or painting etc. They would create a work book, which was a plan on what they wanted to get accomplished in my class, the materials they would use and the steps they would take to have their goal completed. Students were responsible for grading themselves and evaluating their progress based on what they said they wanted vs. what they actually did. Home work for my classes was to have students observe something in their lives, memorize what they had seen and as part next days class to compose a painting of what they observed the day before. They had a goal of completing a painting each day, and seeing the progress in their work. I also encourage students to make contact with an artist they admired. One of the students was interested in fashion design and wrote to “Coco Chanel”. Not only did she receive a response but continued for a while to receive information, advice and feedback that supported her in her studies. Something else I did was to have students study artists and their method of working. Later on they would do a self portrait in the style of the artist they studied. This way of learning I believe provided the students with a deeper understanding of the artist. Over the years many of my students were able to accomplish wonderful results, some in the arts and others in different fields. Many of them have stayed in touch and recount how what they had learned had assisted them with their careers as historian, nurses, writers and teachers. My goal was always to recognize individual ability and to see if I could help maximize their results.
- Activism, do you think that art can change the world? Some of my heroes, great artist like Picasso and Goya created work that spoke about a time in the world’s history that needed to change. They and others painted and wrote about an unvarnished truth that I feel may have helped to motivate people and governments to do something different. Art can free people up to think.
- Over the years, you have known many great artists, would they be surprised about the diversity in art today? I don’t think they would be surprised at all, they were all so different. Many of our African American painters and writers were forerunners to some of what we see now coming from our communities. No I don’t think they would be surprised, but they would be pleased.
Please allow me to expand or revise some comments
I would add Elizabeth Catlett, sculptor and print maker who lives in Mexico. Her prints and sculptures have been concerned with the living conditions of her Black subjects. Now that I think of it she was Samella Lewis’ teacher
#4 & 5
My teaching methods varied, depending on who were the subjects and where. Most were developed at Carver High an all Black school where students came from low income backgrounds. A small school, population 400 at the greatest population number. My classes ranged from 8 – 12 and lasted two periods for advanced students. The Principal was supportive with my budget requests. This allowed me to include a variety of subjects an to design a new art building that a bond issue made possible. I designed and taught ceramics in a separate room that enabled us to keep clay dust from photography. We had the first high fire gas and electric kiln in the state. We had a dark room for developing film taken by the 35mm Exakta or by the 4 x 5 press camera. There was a loom for weaving. We built silk a screen press for serigraph printing, and a woodcut press. Gas and air were piped around the room for jewelry making at several locations for those interested in making rings, bracelets. Necklaces and other jewelry. I had designed an office surrounded by glass so I could observe students working in other parts of the room. There also was space with chairs for discussions, visitors and lectures.. these introduced artists, African, African European, ancient and modern. We had interesting visitors rank including Frank Lloyd Wright, Lew Davis, Harry Wood, and other local artist. There was an annual exhibit and parents of art students.
Awards were given in the form of materials to be used during the summer. Contributions came from the community, Barry Goldwater of Goldwater’s Department store was a frequent contributor. Judges for the exhibit came from the ASU art department
After Carver closed I went to Phoenix Union