NEW YORK CITY – A trove of paintings by a previously unheralded, self-taught artist from Spartanburg, S.C., provides the core material of a new traveling exhibition that offers a personal vision of the strength and creativity of African American life during the final decades of segregation. Titled “: The Paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray,” the exhibition is at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
After the exhibition closes at the Schomburg Center on January 3, “” will travel to the Chicago Historical Society (January 18-May 26), the Atlantic History Center (June 21-September 1) and a venue to be announced in Los Angeles (Fall-Winter 2003).
The exhibition encompasses some 35 paintings by Gray (1941-2000), as well as a selection of archival photographs and videotaped interviews that put the artwork into historical and social context.
The paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray, which were known only regionally during his lifetime, came to light through the development of a web site, when researchers were directed to Gray’s widow, Mrs Shirley Sims Gray, whose collection of her late husband’s work forms the core of the exhibition.
Raised in a sharecropper family, Johnnie Lee Gray attended the segregated black high school for Spartanburg County, S.C., then served in the Army for seven years, including a tour of duty in Vietnam. Although he worked in the textile mills after returning home and later became a carpenter, he always viewed himself as an artist, having drawn since childhood. In 1978 he met and married Shirley Sims and began to paint for the first time. From then until his death in 2000 at age 58, he completed approximately 150 paintings.
Most of Gray’s paintings evoke his experiences as an African American living in the Jim Crow South and into the first decades of desegregation. He painted scenes of fieldwork (recalled from childhood, when he served as a water boy during harvests), church life, night life, civil rights demonstrations and the changing city. Among the themes of the exhibition are the strength of family; the sense of community in both rural and urban settings; the power of the African American church; and the process of migration, both physical and spiritual, as African Americans searched for a better way of life.
“: The Paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray” is curated by Dr Gwendolyn H. Everett, a former staff member of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and author of the award-winning children’s book Li’l Sis and Uncle Willie. Dr Everett currently teaches art history at Howard University.