Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted October 7, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia. The essay is contained in the fully illustrated exhibition catalogue Myths and Metaphors: The Art of Leo Twiggs, ISBN 0-915977-52-4, which was published in connection with an exhibit of the same name held at the Georgia Museum of Art January 30, 2004 - March 28, 2004. We express appreciation to Bonnie Ramsey of the Georgia Museum of Art for bringing the essay to our attention. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Myths and Metaphors: The Art of Leo Twiggs
by Marilyn Laufer
Histories intertwine and unfold in a curious way. In December 1955, Leo Franklin Twiggs was on his way toward realizing his dream of becoming an artist. He was twenty-one years old and finishing the first semester of his senior year as an art major at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Farther south in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks had disregarded a bus driver's warning to yield her seat or be arrested. At that definitive moment, Parks's private history intersected with public history, a decision that stemmed from a lifetime of injustice and intolerance tempered by her personal strength and conviction. Certainly, Twiggs's decision to become an artist was a different kind of deliberation, but one that spoke equally of the fortitude and character inured in this young African American from rural South Carolina.
It is within the context of segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and other cultural and political ramifications of the time that Leo Twiggs came of age. He had begun his studies at Claflin University in 1952, the year Arthur Rose, his mentor and later close friend, established the art program, which was the only one available to African Americans in South Carolina. This historically black college had a solid reputation for training teachers, but Twiggs noted that Rose taught him to be an artist who would teach art and not art teachers. Rose had graduated from Claflin in 1950, and returned after finishing graduate work at New York University. His twenty-five year teaching career at Claflin offered great opportunities for African American art students in the South. Leo Twiggs was one of the first to benefit from Rose's tutelage.
Even with Rose's encouragement and the supportive atmosphere of the private campus, Twiggs struggled financially and emotionally during his years at Claflin. He wanted to assist his mother, five brothers, and sister in St. Stephen, South Carolina, but the money he made doing odd jobs barely covered his own expenses.
Twiggs learned to run a movie projector at the Star Theater in St. Stephen. He had begun doing janitorial work, but the Star's white projectionist wanted to step away from the confines of the projection booth, so he taught Leo how to run the projector. The owner of the Star Theater realized that Twiggs could do the job for a lot less money. Sadly, the night he ran his first movie was the night his father died of cancer. Twiggs also recalls that his mother would wait up for him to return from the theater every night because she knew that a black youth out alone late at night could easily become the target of assault or worse.
As Twiggs approached high school graduation in St. Stephen, James Browder, a local white Baptist minister whom he did not know, visited the family and arranged an appointment for Twiggs with Dr. John Seabrook, president of Claflin University. Twiggs was an excellent student. His earliest drawings were copies of things he had seen in books, but with practice, he showed certain abilities that were admired in the small community. The minister accompanied Twiggs to his meeting at Claflin, which changed the course of his life.
Not long after Twiggs arrived at Claflin University, E. G. Bowman, the owner of Orangeburg's Carolina Theater, contacted him about working as a projectionist. Bowman was willing to accommodate his class schedule, and he also introduced Twiggs to the artistry of film projecting, which included making smooth transitions between reels and slowly bringing the house lights and sound up or down. Aside from the pay, which amazed Twiggs at forty dollars a week, the job offered him a connection with the "world" beyond his present familiarity. Twiggs has noted that watching the same film repeatedly made him aware of camera angles and sequencing, but he doubts its direct effect on his art. The real impression was perhaps more subliminal than aesthetic. In the eight years he worked in movie theaters, Twiggs saw hundreds of films that offered him a broader world view than he would have found on his own or even in the classroom. His steady diet of cinema, both the good and bad, exposed him to other cultures and ideas. Twiggs noted that when he first reached New York, and later Arizona as an army private, he was very aware of seeing things that he had remembered from the movies. For Twiggs, film revealed the infinite possibilities beyond South Carolina.
Other life experiences added to his knowledge of a larger world. Before Twiggs graduated from Claflin University, Arthur Rose invited him on a trip to the campus of Florida A & M University in Tallahassee. It was Twiggs's first train ride, and the meeting would later result in the formulation of the National Conference of Artists. There, a greatly impressed Twiggs met professional African American artists and teachers.
After graduation, Twiggs spent two years in the Army Signal Corps. His fondest memory of that time was hearing Duke Ellington play and having him sign an album cover. Returning to South Carolina to take a teaching position at Lincoln High School in Sumter, Twiggs remembered a decisive moment as a new teacher. The principal asked him if he would use a book for his course and Twiggs instinctively said yes. He had never considered using a book before but found that it made a huge difference. His students quickly realized that Twiggs's art class was serious business. Approaching the material methodically, his students learned color and design theory and new ideas and techniques. Twiggs's success was evident in the fact that his students won national as well as regional and state awards, a rarity in the late 1950s for a segregated public school. His work in Sumter garnered the support of the school superintendent and local school board members, some of whom bought works produced by Twiggs's students. It was also at this time that Twiggs met Rosa Johnson, who worked as a library assistant. They married in 1961.
During the summers when he was not teaching, Twiggs continued his art studies, first at the Art Institute of Chicago (1960) and later at New York University (1961-64), where he earned a master's degree while a student of Hale Woodruff's. Twiggs experimented with abstract expressionism, as did most artists in America in the early 1960s. His personal breakthrough came when he began investigating the subtle relationship between color and value. His oil painting, Red Thing (Figure I, Cat. no. 2), reflected that understanding with its intricate nuances and modulations of crimson. Woodruff praised this painting, but he also maintained that as an African American artist, Twiggs should rely on those ideas and symbols from his own culture that would also speak to the universal experience. Twiggs's education as an artist during those summers also included visits to galleries and museums in Manhattan.
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