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

 

The 1970s were a time of enormous artistic productivity for Twiggs. His work was included in a number of important group shows such as Existence/Black (1972) at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, and Directions in Afro-American Art ( 1974) at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. His first one-person show, Leo F. Twiggs (1972) was at the Asheville Art Museum in North Carolina. His work also was featured in Down Home Landscapes (1978) a solo exhibition in New York at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Twiggs was included in important publications at this time, including Art: African American (1978) by Samella Lewis and Black Dimensions in Contemporary American Art (1971) by J. Edward Atkinson.

Twiggs's work from this decade suggests two parallel explorations. The first stems from the artist's personal childhood memories of family and friends. Sometimes there are specific references, but frequently the images suggest a paternal or maternal presence that pervades the subconscious. Twiggs has noted that though his father, a church elder, was an influential figure in his early life, he also was absent much of the time, working two jobs and tending to the rural family's needs. Therefore, his childhood and early youthful experiences were truly dominated by his grandmother and mother. Their presence was a constant. No matter where he was or what he was doing, they were there, evoking thoughts of discipline, protection, nurturing and comfort. For him the matriarch was the force that kept families together.

The other area of Twiggs's art at this time had its roots in the small towns of Georgia and South Carolina that he had encountered on his drives to Athens in the late 1960s. It was then he began to consider why certain southerners insisted on glorifying their Confederate past by decorating monuments to fallen soldiers and flying the battle flag over public buildings. Their faded dream of an earlier plantation culture remained ever-present in spite of the racial struggles that had torn at the cultural and social fabric of Southern life during the last century. The series of works that evolved out of Twiggs's thoughtful consideration was called Commemoration. In this body of work, Twiggs again addressed the idea of memory, but now it was the dichotomy of how the Confederacy was remembered, since he noted the war was more than just a white experience. As a native son of the South, it was his legacy as well, and he was unwilling to forfeit that. The controversial images of the St. Andrew's cross, which is where the Confederate flag is believed to have originated, and his references to black and white veterans evoked strong reactions. It was a formidable, if controversial, start to his artistic career.

Over the next decade, Twiggs's responsibilities grew to include serving on state and national committees. He was in great demand for his expertise as an educator and as a representative of the African American population (often the only representative). Twiggs has noted that he was well aware of why he was asked to serve on certain national, regional, and state boards, but he also knew that he could make a difference by being there. For his efforts, he was the first visual artist honored with the South Carolina Governor's Trophy, in 1981, known as the Elizabeth O'Neil Verner Individual Award.

At South Carolina State University, Twiggs continued his efforts to improve the program in art by developing his case for an art building. The administration agreed to hire Charlotte-based architect Harvey Gantt, the first black student to graduate from Clemson University. The struggle to erect this building continued for over a decade, but in 1999, the new building opened, providing one of the finest art facilities in the region.

His work continued to be exhibited and he achieved international recognition when it was featured in United States embassies in Rome, Togo Land, Decca, and Sierra Leone. In the privacy of his studio, Twiggs continued to address the themes of family, memory, and the passage of time through his slow and sometimes improvisational batik process. In fall 1989, Hurricane Hugo cut a destructive path through the low country of South Carolina. Twiggs's first concern was for his elderly mother in St. Stephen, fifty miles from Charleston. When he arrived there, he was stunned by the damage. Not only had the environment been altered by the storm, but people's lives had been inexorably changed. He soon realized that despite the devastation this small community's residents would rebuild, as would the city of Charleston. When he returned to Orangeburg, he intended to do a painting for a sale to benefit artists who had lost everything to the hurricane. In working on this picture, Twiggs became increasingly intrigued with the theme of confronting adversity, as emblematic of the resiliency of the human spirit. African Americans had a long history of this kind of inner strength, and he plunged into the Eastwind Suite or Hugo Series, producing eleven pieces. The works were exhibited as a group at the Hampton III Gallery near Greenville, South Carolina, a space that first began handling the artist's work in 1973, and continues to do so. All of his works were sold, allowing Twiggs to build a studio addition to his home. For the first time, he was able to work in his own space, which today he has compared to finding a sanctuary that continues to rejuvenate his artistic energies.

Twiggs always has worked thematically, exploring a topic in three or four images and returning to it at various times over the years. Blues music, history, and culture have been recurring themes, as have spiritual or religious references. In the early 1990s, Twiggs undertook a personal visual translation of Langston Hughes's poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Twiggs grew up near a river in the flood plains of South Carolina, and this rich rice-growing region was much like the region near Sierra Leone from which his African ancestors came. Moreover, the river symbolically represented for him the journey that had brought many Africans into slavery and then away from it. The idea of the reflective nature of water mirroring the surrounding environment fascinated the artist. Twiggs has noted, "Like art, the river is a reflection of life." [1]

In 1998, Twiggs retired from teaching and was able to devote himself full-time to his art. He continues to receive accolades for his academic achievements. He was named professor emeritus at South Carolina State University in 2000; he was awarded a doctor of humanities from Claflin University in 2003; and he received the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame Foundation award in the Field of Art for 2003 as a Claflin alumnus.

In summer 2001, he was honored with the request to create an ornament for the White House Christmas tree. First Lady Laura Bush wanted artists selected from each state to craft a replica of a prominent historical residence or house of worship. Twiggs reproduced the humble clapboard house where civil rights leader and educator Dr. Benjamin Mays was born, paying special attention to every detail, from the rusting tin roof to the weathered exterior boards. His intention was to pay homage to the man but also to draw attention to the preservation of significant historic houses that were often overlooked because they were not architectural masterpieces. For Twiggs it would be inaccurate and foolish to consider only the elegant and grandiose as representative of our American past.

Twiggs is far from retired when it comes to the studio. Not long ago, when the issue of the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina State House became national news, Twiggs had already begun a re-examination of that imagery in a series called Commemoration Revisited. Again, his flags suggest the decaying fragile emblems of a time long past. Part of this series became a very personal contemplation of his great grandmother, a young slave who as an infant had been taken from her family (Cat. no. 30). He has noted that commemoration is very human, because identifying the past is one way in which a person discovers or defines who he or she is. Twiggs's work suggests that people acknowledge the past, the good and the bad, and learn from it.

His recent studio work has taken a cue from the powerful graphic design of the St. Andrew's cross, which reminded him of the railroad crossing signals of his childhood with the lights flashing above the sign. The idea of a crossing, of making it to the other side, resonated with him, as depicted in Silent Crossing #5 (Figure 3, Cat. no. 35). It suggests the idea of barriers or obstacles that one must work to overcome. The flashing signals are those warnings or deterrents that one must negotiate in order to progress. Although the metaphor describes the reality of everyone's life to an extent, it is particularized here as symbolic of the African American struggle through the figure in the derby hat that is targeted or embattled by virtue of who he is.

Most important, this body of work conveys the artist's enduring sense of place. The railroad crossing is a familiar sight throughout the rural South, which is where Twiggs has chosen to traverse the highway of his life. He is as essentially Southern as Tennessee Williams or William Faulkner, and like theirs, his works resonate with an international audience possibly because of its regional base. Although Twiggs has been marked by the hostilities and racial intolerances of his time, he also has been witness to certain changes and has worked as an effective agent for that change. He has been successful in all aspects of his career, but it is through his art that he has been most constructive in creating an important dialogue about race and its correlation to the past and future. Leo Twiggs, whose life experiences have often represented that juncture of public and private histories, has taken the myths and metaphors of Southern culture and transformed them into resounding declarations of identity and self. Thus, he has made all of us reconsider the true legacy of the South and acknowledge that it is rich enough to encompass us all.

 

Marilyn Laufer

Exhibition Curator

 

Note:

1. Nkiru Nzegwu, Uncommon Beauty In Common Objects: The Legacy of African American Craft Art (Wilberforce, Ohio: National African-American Museum and Cultural Center, 1993), 100.

About the author

Dr. Marilyn Laufer received her Ph.D. at Washington University, St. Louis. According to the University of Auburn's Art Department's web site "Dr. Laufer has taught art history at the University of South Dakota, Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, and Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia.  She has curated national traveling exhibitions for various institutions, most recently Modernism in the South for the Morris Museum in Augusta, Georgia.  Presently she is affiliated with the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia as an independent curator. Her recent exhibitions for them include Ben Shute: The Artist as Teacher and Spirit Yard: The Sculptures of Harold Rittenberry, Jr."

 

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