ACCLAIMED EXHIBITION RISING ABOVE JIM CROW:
(NORTHRIDGE, CA) - A trove of paintings by a previously unheralded, self-taught artist from Spartanburg, South Carolina, provides the core material of an acclaimed traveling exhibition, Rising Above Jim Crow: The Paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray, to be shown at California State University, Northridge from October 11 to November 15 in its only West Coast venue.
THE PAINTINGS OF JOHNNIE LEE GRAY COMES TO
CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE ART GALLERIES BEGINNING OCTOBER 11
Encompassing some 35 paintings by Gray (1941-2000), as well as a selection of archival photographs and videotaped interviews that put the artwork into context, the exhibition offers an unforgettable personal vision of the strength and creativity of African-American life during the final decades of segregation.
"We are honored to host the exhibition at Cal State Northridge," said University President Jolene Koester. "These paintings provide a provocative look at a period of time in America's history, and what progress has and hasn't taken place in the country since the time of Jim Crow. We invite the community to visit our Art Galleries and take advantage of a rare opportunity to see an important exhibition that makes one think about an issue that continues to resonate in our society."
The exhibition will open noon Saturday, October 11 at the Art Galleries. Exhibition hours will be noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The exhibition at Cal State Northridge is presented as a collaboration between the Art Galleries in the College of Arts, Media and Communication, and the Department of History in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Rising Above Jim Crow: The Paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray is sponsored by New York Life Insurance Co., which also was the sole corporate underwriter of the four-part Thirteen/
WNET New York series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, broadcast in 2002-2003 on PBS. KCET, California's public broadcasting station, will re-broadcast the Peabody Award-winning series on four consecutive Fridays, beginning October 31 at 10:00 p.m. "New York Life Insurance Company is pleased to sponsor Rising Above Jim Crow: The Paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray as part of our ongoing commitment to educational initiatives in the communities where we do business," said Sy Sternberg, chairman and chief executive officer.
"It is not only those who lived during the Jim Crow era who were affected by it," Sternberg added. "This chapter of American history directly influenced art, literature, music, and popular culture. Our sponsorship of this exhibition and of the landmark television event The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow creates the opportunity to reflect on the past, to better understand the present, and to shape the future."
When the exhibition opened in November 2002 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library, The Wall Street Journal wrote that "Gray's images do not take long to work their way into the imagination. For all that separates him from so exalted a figure as Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, the hitherto unsung folk artist of Spartanburg is her country cousin."
In association with the television series, New York Life has underwritten an educational Web site, www.jimcrowhistory.org, aimed at enhancing and extending the teaching of this historical era in schools nationwide. The paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray, which were known only regionally during his lifetime, came to light through the development of the Web site, when researchers were directed to Gray's widow, Mrs. Shirley Sims Gray, whose collection of her late husband's work forms the core of the exhibition. Paintings from Rising Above Jim Crow have been posted on the Web site, to enable teachers to incorporate these images into their lesson plans.
Cal State Northridge history professor Dr. Ronald L.F. Davis and more than 30 of his graduate students played a key role in the creation of the Web site and the accompanying PBS television series. Building on their past research into slavery in the South and what later happened to African-American people there, Davis was responsible for overseeing the historical content of the Web site, and his students created many of its specific research pieces.
Raised in a sharecropper family, Johnnie Lee Gray attended the segregated black high school for Spartanburg County, South Carolina, and then served in the Army for seven years, including a tour of duty in Vietnam. Although he worked in the 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 then until his death in 2000 at age 58, he completed approximately 150 paintings.
Most of Gray's paintings evoke his experiences as an African-American 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 boy during harvests), church life, nightlife, 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.
Rising Above Jim Crow: The Paintings of Johnnie Lee Gray is curated by Dr. Gwendolyn H. Everett, a former staff member of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and author of the award-winning children's book Li'l Sis and Uncle Willie. Everett teaches art history at Howard University. Written materials for the exhibition have been created by Everett and Dr. Todd Steven Burroughs, a former national correspondent and news editor of the NNPA News Service, who has written for publications including The Source, Africana.com, and the Newark Star-Ledger.
The host of the exhibition, California State University, Northridge, is a vibrant educational community of more than 33,000 students and 3,000 faculty and staff set on a 353-acre campus in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. The university is one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the United States. In July 2003, Black Issues in Higher Education listed Cal State Northridge 14th in its annual ranking of the nation's top 100 colleges for minority students.
New York Life Insurance Company, a Fortune 100 company, is the largest mutual life insurance company in the United States and one of the largest life insurers in the world. Founded in 1845 and headquartered in New York City, New York Life and its affiliates offer life insurance, annuities, and long-term care insurance. New York Life Investment Management, LLC, a New York Life affiliate, provides institutional asset management, retirement plan, and trust services. Other New York Life affiliates provide an array of securities products and services, as well as institutional and retail mutual funds. Visit New York Life's Web site at www.newyorklife.com for more information.