This piece by James Padgett was among the first contemporary outdoor murals painted in Washington, D.C., one of several done in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the wake of student protests that shut the campus down. The opportunity to paint socially conscious murals apparently grew out of student demands for a more relevant curriculum. Padgett, a D.C. native then in his freshman year, received encouragement and guidance from James Porter, Chair of Howard’s Fine Arts Department. Porter had joined the Howard faculty with a great interest in African art and authored Modern African Art (1943), one of the first texts in the field.
This mural, which was displayed on the Fine Arts Building, shows African Americans engaged in a variety of fine arts activities: The man top center is playing a drum; the figure bottom right chiseling a piece of stone is meant to depict both sculpture as an art and the spiritual foundation of life, a theme important to the artist throughout his career. The woman at left is a poet in the act of declaiming her work, meant to signify gender inclusiveness in the arts. The small figure kneeling is a child at play.
The title and theme echo The Art of the Negro, a mural completed in 1952 by renowned artist Hale Woodruff. African art is rich in stylization and use of geometric shapes to create the illusion of movement and depth. The facial representations suggest the masques of traditional African crafts, foregrounding both historical and contemporary black contribution to the arts. The striped vertical shapes in the background are ionic Greek columns, evoking the classical Western tradition; thus, the mural is a pictorial representation of the ineluctable connection of European and African civilizations.
The work went up in 1968, just months after the completion of Chicago’s famed Wall of Respect, the piece linked to black protest and credited with sparking the contemporary mural cycle. Padgett’s mural, however, is modeled on the work of Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), a great artist whose work evolved toward abstraction and expressionism. Padgett’s piece remained on the Fine Arts Building for 12 years, during which time it inspired students and others working in the mural tradition.
Padgett earned a BFA and MA in Fine Arts from Howard; along the way he took a year out to study with Harlem Renaissance muralist Jacob Lawrence. After graduate school Padgett joined the art faculty at Wilberforce College, a historically black liberal arts school in Ohio, where he still teaches. His distinguished career as artist and educator includes scores of one-man shows and group exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad.