Artful Conversations || Two Young Interviewers Get a Sense of Heritage from African/American Artist and Educator Dr. J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr

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    Two Young Interviewers Get a Sense of Heritage from African/American Artist and EducatorDr. J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr.Author(s): Bernard YoungSource: Art Education, Vol. 48, No. 2, Artful Conversations (Mar., 1995), pp. 37-43Published by: National Art Education AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 23:00

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    Dr. J. Eugene Grigsby Jr. THE QUEST

    The quest for discovering information and asking better questions about art, artists, African Americans, and how to encourage the interest of young teenagers about this worthy body of material started in conversations I had with two of my children. We were speaking about the general lack of attention multicultural groups in their schools receive in the curriculum. In particular we were concerned about the placement of African American and Hispanic groups in contemporary history. I was concerned with how Amber and Camille, my two adolescent daughters, could learn extensive information about contemporary artists of color who were not in major art history textbooks but I thought were nationally prominent enough to merit study. I was also concerned with how these artists reached high levels of achievement How did they get to be successful? The approach to information gathering that engaged these two adolescents through a learning-research project concerning art history had to be handled in a sensitive manner because of the period of development these youngsters were going through and the fact that I was their father. I frankly was very interested in how children might develop their knowledge about ethnic artists and increase their appreciation for art history, while maintaining a high level of interest as learners.


    THE NATURE OF THE STUDY Over several months my two

    daughters, under my direction, created a study to learn more about the development and careers of three African American artists. Throughout the study we emphasized and embraced the concept that ethnic variation in society should be welcomed and personally accepted; and that ethnic artists have made numerous contributions to the richness of American society. We selected three individuals who had reached very high levels of accomplishment in art and inquired how they were assisted in developing these capabilities. One of the subjects was Dr. J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr., an internationally known artist and educator, who was 75 years old at the time of the study. The interview with Dr. Grigsby is the focus of this article.

    The method used in the study was the interview. An interview is a meeting at which information is obtained from a person, resulting in a report or reproduction of information. First, decisions on what information should be sought were made. Then a questionnaire was constructed. And finally, reexaminations and revisions of the questions were made by the two investigators. Developing a method to ask questions and even possible biasing factors that may be introduced by the interviewer were also discussed.


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    We identified individuals who were located geographically in the Southwest, whose racial origin was African American, and who had obtained at least national competence in their field or showed evidence for the potential of such competence. The interview methods were used to understand the development and educational processes that were important in enabling the three informants to reach these high levels of knowledge and skill.

    All the questions were written and structured by Amber and Camille; the categories were suggested by this writer. Four major characteristics outlined and used by oral historian E. Culpepper Clark (1985) were discussed and adopted: the interview was to be oral, autobiographical, the result of memory and a function of a joint intellectual endeavor. Categories developed were education and development, childhood experiences and art, teaching experiences, heritage, and ethnicity. The interviewers asked about special artistic or intellectual characteristics evident in the individual during early development such as the role of the home environment in guidance and support from early to later years; also, the type and quality of instruction in art from early through advanced years, and active learning time invested by the individual and any other factors the individual regarded as relevant to development.

    Before interviewing the selected three artists, Amber and Camille tested their questions on several people and discussed the results with me for proposed revisions. In the beginning stages of the study I asked Camille (age

    13) what type of qualities she and Amber (age 15) had looked for and what type of questions they had asked each artist and she replied: "We asked them simple questions at first, then as the interview went along we asked more complicated ones." The more I discussed this with these two young interviewers and the more interviews they conducted the better their questions were and the more they appreciated the process for obtaining accurate information.

    I realized about midway through the project that the training to interview and ask questions was excellent development for Amber's and Camille's writing and speaking skills. And interviewing these articulate, successful artists seemed to enhance the youngsters' self-esteem. The interviews were structured with times planned for the artists to elaborate and tell their own stories. These interviews typically took place in the artist's studio or home at a time that was convenient for the artist. Working in the artist's studio was an educational experience for the interviewers since special equipment, a studio atmosphere, and real examples of works in progress were available to be viewed.

    The three artists interviewed expressed and demonstrated great interest and pride in the opportunity to be interviewed and to share with a young person their abilities, talents, and histories. All the interviews were tape-recorded (with the consent of the interviewee), and these tapes were the basis for each summarized written report.


    The two young interviewers had to understand that we had to depend on

    "Orality" along with its shortcomings and strengths. One initial shortcoming was the lack of clarity often expressed by the interviewee and the failure of the interviewer to pick up on this at the time of the interaction. Communicative interaction between two people often results in each influencing the other. For example, one of our artists stated after the interview that he had answered questions in a way that he thought a teenager could understand, but he would have answered in a different fashion to an adult. A strength of this process is that it is a joint creation of a personal history, expressed and created by at least two people.

    The interviewers realized very early that the product would have an important relationship with autobiography. The interviewees were valued for the personal perspectives and historical experiences they rendered. Three African American


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  • artists from three distinct generations created fascinating interest levels for the interviewers.

    The factor of memory made the histories highly selective. Amber and Camille usually had follow-up questions designed to check or review information given earlier in the interview. Getting the interviewee to express accurately an experience, as it was lived through rather than how it was recalled during the initial period of questioning was a difficult task for these young interviewers. Efficiency in recall definitely has a relationship to how long ago an event happened. Recognition memory is much easier than recall memory, and interviews like these basically required recall from long-term memory.

    Clark (1985) uses the term "Joint Intellectual Product" for the personal historical evidence derived through the

    conversation between the interviewer and interviewee. The interviewer becomes an active agent in creating the historical record. The interaction between these two parties, bringing with them different levels of experience, understandings, and expectations, gave these interviews a highly creative product, but a product not easy to finalize. Each time the interviewer and interviewee met and discussed prior questions and answers, the discussions became elaborated and expanded.


    The following excerpt is from an interview conducted in Dr. Grigsby's home and studio in Phoenix, on July 17, 1992.

    BIOGRAPHICAL INTRODUCTION Dr. J. Eugene Grigsby was born in

    Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1918. He attended Morehouse College where he received a B.A. degree in 1938. He received an MA from Ohio State University in 1940, and was granted a Ph.D. in 1963 from New York University. Dr. Grigsby is currently living in Phoenix, Arizona, where he and his wife have been residents for many years.

    Dr. Grigsby is both an artist and art educator, and throughout his career, he has expressed an interest in people, especially the less fortunate, and the conditions under which they live. This interest and concern for people led Dr. Grigsby on a search for his heritage in African, Indian, and European backgrounds, primarily the African background. This search for his heritage is reflected in an article Dr. Grigsby wrote in 1990, titled, "Afro- American Culture and the White

    Ghetto," in which Dr. Grigsby refers to "a continuum of ancient African cultures to the modem" (p. 67). In this article, the author describes how the African American culture of today is shaped by ancient African culture, by Caribbean, Central and South American, American Indian influences, and by those of the Europeans who overran the African continent (Grigsby, 1990).

    As an artist, Dr. Grigsby expresses this concern for his heritage through painting and printmaking. Dr. Grigsby paints with both oils and acrylics, and uses two different printmaking techniques, serigraphy and lithography. InArtists Select: Contemporary Perspectives by Afro- American Artists, Dr. Grigsby describes his paintings and prints, "My efforts have continually stressed the visual impact through the relation of shapes, textures, colors, lines, and spaces, interlaced with rhythms and patterns" (p. 14). In his artwork, Dr. Grigsby explores the visual imagery of African pattern to "explore and touch upon the human qualities ingrained in each of us which cause us to react, for good or evil, towards one another" (p. 14). Dr. Grigsby has exhibited his artworks in both solo and group shows in America, Europe, and Africa, where many of his paintings and prints are found in collections.

    Dr. Grigsby's book, Art and Ethnics, 1977, reveals his interest in young people and his research on the increasing awareness of ethnicity, diversity, and heritage in art. Dr. Grigsby writes, "In the effort to assure youth that they are important and that their ancestors have made valuable contributions, it is also important for them to know that other people, different from themselves, have also


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  • made contributions to humanity, which can be respected and appreciated, and that each student has a contribution to make in the effort to improve the quality of living ..." (Preface xii). As an art educator, Dr. Grigsby has taught at high school and university level. He taught high school in Phoenix, Arizona, from 1946 to 1966, and was a professor at Arizona State University from 1966 to 1988. Dr. Grigsby has also lectured in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.

    Dr. Grigsby has won many awards as both an artist and art educator. These awards include the 25th Anniversary Medallion presented by the National Gallery of Art, the New

    York University Founder's Day Certificate for Scholastic Achievement in 1964, the Arizona State University Graduate College Distinguished Research Award in 1982-83, the National Art Education Association's Art Educator of the Year Award in 1988, and the Governor's Award for a significant contribution to the arts in Arizona in 1989. And finally, in 1992, Dr. Grigsby received the Arizona History Makers Award for exceptional accomplishments.


    I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina in October 17, 1918.


    An artist does an awful lot of things. It depends first on what kind of artist one is. I concentrate my own work in the visual arts limited primarily to painting and printmaking, although I have done some photography. The painting is limited to acrylics, because of the nature of oils, their volatile nature, fumes, and all those elements; they will get to you after a while. The same thing with printmaking. The toxic materials you use may be quite debilitating, and they can be a concern about your health, if you expect to stay here for a while. Coming back to what does an artist do. Avisual artist

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  • expresses himself, herself about human conditions, within a framework of design. The artist must be aware of space and color, patterns and texture. I think the artist should be aware of history. An artist does not create out of a vacuum and one of the important things about art and one I think has to do with expressions is the way an artist sees "self." What kind of sense of self an artist has. And, if the sense of self is strong, it makes expression come strong. So, the artist in order to develop this sense of self and of expression has to have a sense of heritage. So, you couple an understanding of self and heritage with an expression of the human condition that you acquire around you with the knowledge of basic design; or even more than the knowledge, with the sense of design. One of my mentors, a writer, talks about the difference between the knowledge in art and the sense of art. He talks about a pilot who has the sense of flying, which is much different from the knowledge of flying. Some people can have all kinds of knowledge but the sense, the feel, if it is lacking, then the art is weak. Then there are those who have very little knowledge, but who can put together some very strong works. So knowledge is helpful but the sense of being, sense of self, and the sense of design are by far more important and that to me is what an artist does to express himself or herself about society by using design, using all of the elements of the arts, and a sense of understanding of history.

    WHAT IS A GOOD ARTIST? (Not necessarily in terms of good

    paintings but in terms of the kind of artist you would respect.)

    Well, I am trying to think of profiles of some of those I do respect, someone whose works exhibit integrity and

    creativity. Something unique about the work as well as the individual. Again it comes back to this thing of integrity. You can't copy somebody else's work. You have to have a sense of design and a sense of color, space, pattern, and texture; one with a sense of balance doesn't have to be prolific, doesn't have to work with a big variety of media. One of the first persons who impressed me was a man I knew who had gone only to the fourth grade. He was a master stone mason in demand for his skills. I was his 13-year-old paperboy, who couldn't catch him to collect because he was always out of town. I knew he would pay when I found him at home. One morning about 4 a.m. I found him

    at home. I saw a lot of paintings in his house when he opened the door. There were paintings all around the wall. And I asked him where he got them and he said he painted them. I laughed because he didn't fit my stereotype of what an artist should look like. He was short and black and I knew he didn't have much education and that he was a stone mason. His hands were rough. And, all the artists I had ever seen were white, blond, and blue-eyed. He saw my dilemma and said, "If you don't believe me, come and watch me sometime." So, I did and got hooked. He was a good artist but his art wasn't that great. He was a man who was able to express himself. Some of his things were quite

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  • good. He got his works from any place. He copied some things, he created some other things, he was quite eclectic but at least he had a sense of himself. I have known a number of other artists like that. Some were much more professional but a good artist is one who has a strong self-expression, who is able to use the media, who doesn't repeat himself all the time, who can use similar subjects, who has a style and yet the style isn't redundant.


    About the same as becoming a



    mathematician. One's skills and abilities have to be developed and trained. No one knows what kind of potential one has till one's life is over. And some people say, "He had a lot of potential." But how do you know he had a lot of potential? It never came out. So, it is a matter of that inner struggle, that inner desire to achieve and other circumstances. I don't believe there is any talent as such bestowed on somebody. Because I have seen kids who never thought they would be able to do anything and they kept working and working, and they out-achieved some of those who looked like they would be the ones who were going to go great guns.

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    They played a major role in developing me as an individual. But as an artist I don't think so. They could never understand what I was doing. My father went along, sometimes reluctantly and supported me. But my mother was very supportive. They knew of no artists who had made a living from art and the impression was that they are weird people. It was after some successes came to me that they became very proud of what I was doing, both as an artist and as a teacher.


    To become a great artist. I have so many things I want to do. Paintings I would like to do. I want to do some more work in prints. One thing I have done consistently over the years and forced myself to do it each year, is I do a card and usually I do it as a silk-screen. Sometimes I build from the card to a painting and sometimes I build a card from the painting. So it kind of revolves by itself. I used to think I would like to do a mural but I never got into it and then when you think of the size and the



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  • extent of it, yes, the hours, it is difficult. I want to get into some more printmaking and at one time get into doing something in fabric prints. I would like to see more exhibits. I am also thinking about writing a book. I'd like to revise the one I did and then have thoughts about doing an autobiography. I should get a copy of these tapes. But the main thing I think about is trying to make life interesting for my wife and myself in the time we have left. We can't count on as many years ahead as we have had in the past. So we have to make them fruitful. Right now, I am laying some bricks for garden space and flowers. I am planning to clean the place up some. Hopefully we can close the backyard, clean out the garage studio. I have mixed feelings about that because that will take me out of the house and my wife won't like that unless she can go with me to the garage and the studio. But the COBA1 thing has kept me busy. Trying to get people to move in support of art.

    CONCLUDING REMARKS This interview along with the others

    provided evidence that was very similar to results yielded in a 1985 study by Benjamin S. Bloom and associates, that no matter what the initial characteristics (or gifts) of individuals, there was usually a long and intensive process of encouragement, nurturing, education and training, in each individual's life that helped them to attain extreme levels of capability in their particular fields.2

    This finding is especially important for various ethnic community members to realize. It is important to note that developing talent in art is not

    ''p erseverance is the key to becoming an artist. Without it you will never succeed. Having it does not promise success, but without it there is no hope."

    dependent solely on innate aptitudes, as the only prerequisites of talent development. In Nicolaides' The Natural Way to Draw (Nicolaides, 1941), he is quick to instruct beginners studying art ... "your ultimate success depends on only one element, and that is yourself. It is a fallacy to suppose that you can get the greatest results with a minimum of effort. There is no such thing as getting more than you put into anything" (p. 4). Dr. Grigsby stated in answer to a question on the role perseverance played in his artistic development, "Perseverance is the key to becoming an artist. Without it you will never succeed. Having it does not promise success, but without it there is no hope." Our informants told us that children are influenced by several elements and one of the most important influences are parents. Teachers and other relatives also influenced these individuals until they reached their highest levels of learning and capability in their field. Some of these individuals continued to influence them after these levels of accomplishment were reached.

    Only a very small amount of human potential is ever fully developed in each society. Grigsby and the other artists interviewed for this study pointed out that we can increase this potential through enhancing children's inner strength and their environmental conditions. This message is especially important for underrepresented ethnic groups to realize during a period when many members of their groups are far from reaching their full potentials.

    Bernard Young is an Associate Professor of art education at Arizona State University and Program Head of the graduate program.

    NOTES 'COBA is The Consortium Of Black

    Organizations and others For the Arts. Dr. Grigsby is the long-standing chairman of this group.

    'Additional details of this study may be obtained from the author at Arizona State University, School of Art, Tempe, AZ 85287-1505.

    REFERENCES Bloom, B. S., (Ed.) (1985). Developing Talent

    In Young People. New York: Ballantine Books.

    Clark, E. C. (1985). The Oral History Interview. In Alexander Tolar (Ed.), Effective Interviewing (pp. 178-195). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

    Nicolaides, K (1941). The Natural Way To Draw. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Peshkin, A. (1993). The Goodness of Qualitative Research. Educational Researcher, 22(2), 23-29.

    Artists select: Contemporary perspectives by Afro-American artists. (1986). Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University Art Collections.

    Grigsby, J. E. (1977). Art and ethnics: Backgroundfor teachingyouth in a pluralistic society. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Company.

    Grigsby, J. E. (1990). Afro-American culture and the white ghetto. Art, Culture, and Ethnicity, Bernard Young, Ed. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, 61-68.


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    Article Contentsp.37p.38p.39p.40p.41p.42p.43

    Issue Table of ContentsArt Education, Vol. 48, No. 2, Artful Conversations (Mar., 1995), pp. 1-54Front Matter [pp.1-3]An EditorialAlchemy 101 [pp.4-5]

    Letters to the Editor [p.5]The Mysterious Lady from Surinam [pp.6-11]Recipe for Assessment: How Arty Cooked His Goose while Grading Art [pp.12-17]Harvey Shows the Way: Narrative in Children's Art [pp.18-22]Animation for Children: David Ehrlich and the Cleveland Museum of Art Workshop [pp.23-36]Instructional Resources: Images of the American West Phoenix Art Museum [pp.25-32]Two Young Interviewers Get a Sense of Heritage from African/American Artist and Educator Dr. J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr. [pp.37-43]Electronic Artstrands: Computer Delivery of Art Instruction [pp.44-51]Back Matter [pp.52-54]


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