James McMillan, To Be Alone

Born in Sanford, North Carolina, James C. McMillan entered Howard University in 1941, at the age of 15. There McMillan studied under Alain Locke, Loïs Mailou Jones and James Lesesne Wells.  McMillan’s education was put on hold when he enlisted in the Navy in 1943.  He returned to Howard three years later and graduated in 1947 earning himself a summer fellowship at the inaugural year of the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine, becoming its first African-American fellow. After three years teaching at Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, McMillan left for Paris, and attended the Académie Julian in 1950-51.

McMillan returned in 1951 to complete a third tenure at Bennett; as well as complete an M.F.A. in sculpture and a doctorial advanced studio art study at Syracuse University, N.Y.  In 1969, he accepted a post as a Professor and Chair of the Art Department at nearby Guilford College. McMillan was the first African-American chair of the Art Department there. He retired in 1988. 

He exhibited extensively including solo and group shows at Skowhegan School of Art (1947); Smithsonian Institution Regional (1953); Corcoran Area Show, Washington, DC (1954); Guilford College (1981); Winston-Salem State University (1981); University North Carolina Charlotte (1991); 23rd Annual Competition for North Carolina Artists, Fayetteville Museum of Art (1995).

A retrospective show of the artist’s work, Loss and Redemption: The Art of James C. McMillan (December 10, 2009-February 21, 2010) was held at the Bakersfield Museum of Art (Bakersfield, CA).  The Art of James C. McMillan: Discovering an African American Master was held at Bennett College in Greensboro, NC in 2011.

   To Be Alone  , 1960/1961; oil on board, 35.75” x 23.75”, signed and dated 60 lower right; titled and dated 61 on verso.

To Be Alone, 1960/1961; oil on board, 35.75” x 23.75”, signed and dated 60 lower right; titled and dated 61 on verso.

 James McMillan (b. 1925)

James McMillan (b. 1925)

Many African-American artists of the 20th Century have also depicted loss in their work (Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett and Jacob Lawrence, among others), but perhaps none so deftly and devastatingly right on as the North Carolinian, James C. McMillan. While the aforementioned artists veered more forcibly into art of protest, resistance and rebellion, James McMillan’s work, especially that of the 1950s and ‘60s, more clearly examined the depths of personal loss, of the deep psychological damage…
By depicting individual loss, McMillan appealed to human empathy to motivate a responsive connection of viewer to victim. Ever the humanist, McMillan looked at those individuals, white as well as black, who had fallen or been pushed off the optimistic society’s road and who could not, rather than would not, get back on. The roads had been blocked, shored up, closed off. McMillan extrapolated from his personal experiences of racial injustice to form a philosophy that encompassed opposition to all injustice.

Robert E. Holmes, essay for the catalogue of Loss and Redemption: The Art of James C. McMillan,  Bakersfield Museum of Art (Bakersfield, CA).

Thelma Johnson Streat: Faith in an Ultimate Freedom


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January 20-March 7, 2014  Viewing by appointment.

Faith in an Ultimate Freedom is a ground-breaking exhibition featuring the artwork of Thelma Johnson Streat (American, 1911-1959).  The exhibit consists mostly of work held by the family of the artist.  Thelma Johnson Streat was an African American painter and dancer who focused her career on promoting ideas of multi-culturalism and raising the social awareness of inequalities among the lines of gender and race.  The scope of this exhibit spans her entire career, beginning in the mid-1930s and ending in the mid-1950s, when the artist suddenly and tragically, died of a heart attack.  

In the late 1930s and early 1940s,  Streat worked with the WPA executing murals in San Francisco.  She worked closely with Diego Rivera on the Art in Action mural there in 1940.  She continued to use the genre of murals to address social inequality toward African Americans in the early 1940s, after she arrived in Chicago.  By the mid-1940s, her style became increasingly abstract, and took on a neo-primitivist feel, appropriating symbolism from many diverse cultures in an effort to communicate more universally.  This turn in style has caused her work to be associated (in retrospect) with the Abstract Expressionists of the late 1940s and early 1950s.  

In 1946, Streat added another dimension to her work: dance.  Her multi-dimensional performances and exhibits were the first of their kind, with Streat performing modern dance movements in front of paintings she had done that were thematically associated.

Faith in an Ultimate Freedom takes the viewer through the life and artistic career of this amazingly-gifted artist chronologically.  It is insightful and inspirational.  The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalog, available for download and in printed format.