Walls That Speak: The Murals of John Thomas Biggers

Walls That Speak: The Murals of John Thomas Biggers

Walls That Speak: The Murals of John Thomas Biggers

Walls That Speak: The Murals of John Thomas Biggers


John Thomas Biggers (1924-2001) was one of the most significant African American artists of the twentieth century. He was known for his murals, but also for his drawings, paintings, and lithographs, and was honored by a major traveling retrospective exhibition from 1995 to 1997. He created archetypal imagery that spoke positively to the rich and varied ethnic heritage of African Americans, long before the Civil Rights era drew attention to their African cultural roots. His influence upon other artists was profound, both for the power of his art and as professor and elder statesman to younger generations.

Olive Jensen Theisen's long-time commitment to the art of John Biggers resulted from the serendipitous discovery of an early Biggers mural in a school storeroom in the mid-1980s. Theisen immediately recognized the artist, the work, and its significance. She then set about returning The History of Negro Education in Morris County, Texas to a place of honor and found herself becoming a friend and recorder of John Biggers's stories and experiences relating to the creation of his other murals too, including Family Unity at Texas Southern University.

Containing more than eighty color and black-and-white illustrations, Walls That Speak is a richly illustrated update of an earlier edition published in 1996. The artist completed new murals between its publication and his death in 2001. In addition to the inclusion of the new murals, Theisen has added a chapter on Biggers's African art collection. The only work exclusively dedicated to his murals, this book will appeal to all those interested in murals or African American art.

"As a result of her friendship with Dr. Biggers, Dr. Theisen clearly has unique access to the works that are now held by the Biggers estate. Her interviews provide a deeply personal insight into the mind of this remarkable man and the symbols he employed in his art."-- R. William McCarter , Regents Professor of Art, University of North Texas


The hope of finding a painting by a “famous artist” in some gloomy closet sends many a junk store enthusiast digging through piles of canvases in dusty places. One Saturday morning I found myself in a storeroom pushing aside map stands, overhead projectors and other left-over classroom equipment in order to get a look at a very long painting leaning forlornly against a far wall. For a variety of reasons, I thought it might be a painting by the African American muralist John Biggers. Locating the signature affirmed my suspicion. But why was it here, abandoned and in disrepair? To make a long story very short, this book evolved out of the need to answer those questions.

Eventually, I reached John Biggers by phone in Houston and later was able to meet with him and his wife Hazel. Several years passed as we sought ways to draw attention to this very special work and secure protection for it. My husband finally became the enthusiastic catalyst for the eventual insuring, framing, and re-installation of History of Negro Education in Morris County Texas in the new elementary school library.

A formal re-dedication ceremony was held in October 1989. Dr. and Mrs. Biggers drove up from Houston for the event. That day in conversation, we discussed the need for a book on all of Biggers’s murals. the artist suggested with a smile that I should take on the project. I heard myself saying, “Sure, ok, I’ll give it a try.” (At that point I didn’t even know exactly how many murals he’d done. Such audacity.) and that was the beginning of a fascinating twenty-year adventure.

Tis text was far more comprehensive than the one I had originally imagined. Biggers took me to various mural sites; I took notes, queried him, taped our conversations and visited his collectors. Eventually I was able to see all of the murals on-site except those at Penn State. Several times between 1990–1993, Biggers reviewed the manuscript for accuracy. the body of the work was finally completed in November 1993. Hampton University Museum published the first edition in October 1996. John and Hazel Biggers’s generous hospitality and cooperation made this collaboration a rare pleasure.

Olive Jensen Theisen, 1996 . . .

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