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.
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).