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New York City
November 2002

Rising Above Jim Crow:
Art Exhibition & Public Television Series

A trove of paintings by a previously unheralded, self-taught artist from Spartanburg, South Carolina, 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. Rising Above Jim Crow: The Paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray opens in New York City on November 20 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (a division of the New York Public Library).

The exhibition encompasses some 35 paintings by Gray (1941-2000) as well as a selection of archival photographs and video interviews that place the artwork in its historical and social contexts.

Raised in a sharecropper family, Johnnie Lee Gray attended the segregated black high school in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, then served in the army for seven years, including a tour of duty in Vietnam. Although he worked in 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 that point until his death in 2000 at the age of 58, he completed approximately 150 paintings.

Most of Grayís paintings evoke his experiences as an African-America 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 by 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 life.

The paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray, which were known only regionally during his lifetime, came to light through the development of a website for educators being developed in conjunction with the television series. Researchers were directed to Grayís widow, Ms. Shirley Sims Gray, whose collection of her late husbandís work forms the core of the exhibition. The artwork on display in the exhibit, as well as other teaching aids (including an offer to educators for free videotapes of the television series), are available on the website (www.jimcrowhistory.org.)

An advance presentation of the exhibition, timed to coincide with the broadcast of the four-part WNET/13 television series of the same name, will be held by the projectís corporate sponsors at the Forbes Galleries October 5-19.#

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