Above Jim Crow:
Art Exhibition & Public Television Series
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
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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