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

 

In 1964, Twiggs and his young family returned to Orangeburg, where he began a thirty-four-year teaching career at South Carolina State University, the only public black college in the state. At that time, there was no art department, and the music and fine arts department offered courses in painting or art appreciation.

It was while introducing the ancient process of batik as a classroom activity that Twiggs began to experiment with the process on his own, recognizing that the medium could produce color variations that ran the gamut from jewel-like intensity to faded remnants of the past. The spidery lines and textures, which he achieved when the wax cracked and the dyes ran over and into each other, produced an effect that he was not able to realize through painting. Batik's African connection as a traditional process used to decorate fabric also attracted his interest. Twiggs's early work in batik reflected both his past and present. In Blue Wall (Figure 2, Cat. no. 3), the two boys, thin and lost in their own estrangement, suggest his familiarity with the moods of the youth he taught. They are also representative of the boys who inhabited his childhood memories. The shape of their featureless heads suggest shadowy pre-natal silhouettes and link back in time to the carved figures of their African ancestors, making past, present, and future resonate within the familiar.

In 1967, Twiggs was encouraged to use federal funds that had become available to continue his education at the University of Georgia in Athens. He became one of four black students who were accepted into the university's graduate programs. After his time at New York University, Twiggs doubted that he would be impressed with the art program at Georgia. He soon discovered that, under the leadership of Lamar Dodd, the university's art department was one of the most modern and well equipped in the United States, with the added bonus of an exceptional faculty. Dodd assured Twiggs that he was a welcomed colleague and not just another student. Twiggs recalled that although he was treated cordially within the department, walking across campus was an entirely different experience. There, the mostly white students avoided contact and never acknowledged his presence.

The doctoral program in art education at the University of Georgia began soon after Twiggs started taking classes. Upon admittance into that new program, he began his studies with art educator Frank Wachowiak. Edmund B. Feldman, who taught art philosophy and criticism, oversaw his dissertation, "The Effects of Teaching a Method of Art Criticism on the Aesthetic Responses of Culturally Disadvantaged Junior High Students," and helped him become more introspective, something Twiggs said later helped him in the studio. He was the first African American to be granted an Ed.D. in art education from the University of Georgia.

The three years he traveled between Orangeburg and the Georgia campus in Athens provided Twiggs with myriad visuals that reflected both the icons and traditions of the Old South as well as the racial conflicts and struggles of the present. In February 1968, while Twiggs was in Athens, students from Claflin University and South Carolina State University tried to gain admittance to the bowling alley in Orangeburg. A fight ensued, resulting in National Guardsmen and state highway patrol officers barricading the campuses. When someone began throwing stones at passing cars, the soldiers and officers opened fire, resulting in the death of three students. Twiggs arrived in town to find tanks blocking streets and guards restricting access. He finally reached his wife and two small sons and relocated them for a few weeks to his brother's home in Atlanta.

Given the benefit of hindsight, it is impressive to see the path that Twiggs set for himself after completing his doctoral degree. South Carolina was the only state that did not have an art department at its state-supported black college, and Twiggs decided that needed to be rectified. By 1972, he had opened an art gallery in the basement of the Miller F. Whittaker Library at South Carolina State University, which offered students a range of exhibitions, many of which came from their own communities. By 1973, South Carolina State University was admitting its first art education majors. The curriculum that Twiggs developed for his students was demanding, requiring sixty credit hours in the studio. Over the next few years, he successfully petitioned the administration to add key art faculty positions. Within a decade of finishing his doctorate at Georgia, Twiggs became chair of South Carolina State University's art department. He also oversaw the opening of the I. P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium on campus and scheduled visiting artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, and Elizabeth Catlett. Administering the new museum added to his responsibilities.

When his daily teaching and administrative work was over, he found solace in a studio he had commandeered in the science building. Twiggs knew that he was only allowed to remain there because the university's president, Dr. M. Maceo Nance, believed in his work and recognized the importance of an art program to the college. Twiggs often remained there late into the night, sometimes seeing his sons only when Rosa brought them by to share his dinner

 

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