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I came home from school one day and sat down on my bed (we had a rollaway bed that all the children slept in) and I prayed. I said, “God—you can take anything away from me except my art.” Because I knew art was a vehicle to express anything I wanted to express, and nobody could take that away from me: not the president, congress or anybody. And I knew it was the key that would open up many doorways to the cosmic understanding of life and nature and allow me to find out what, where, who am I? Why am I here? Why was I born in my mother’s womb? And what am I supposed to be doing? I knew that art could help.

So when I was sitting down telling God all of this, God revealed to me what I was supposed to be doing and when it was going to happen. I knew that I was about to go to TSU, undergraduate. I knew that I was going to graduate school, and I knew I was going to come back and teach at TSU. I saw all that when I was 14. So that much I knew about my destiny.

An angel in-between

There’s a wonderful woman in-between that I must mention: Dr. M. Jordan Atkinson. Dr. Atkinson. She knew Willie and Anne, and she came to Port Arthur and I just happened to be at Willie and Anne’s. I met her—a short lady with silverish yellow hair—and she said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I’m going to TSU.” She said, “Well, I tell you what. When you get there, you look me up.” And she prepared a package for me when I got there to Houston. The package included where I should go, who I should see—and I got a scholarship and I also got a loan. It was really wonderful embracing this Caucasian woman, you know. She loved art. And she wanted to help serve. She was a doctor of history at TSU. She taught for many years at TSU. My mother met her. My mother came to Houston—we all came that time—and met Dr. Atkinson at her home, you know.

Harvey Johnson at TSU Art Center working on "Umbrellas, Sunshine and Rain," 1969. Courtesy of the artist.

At tsu

John met me one Sunday with my mother and he saw my work that I did in the tenth grade. I did a portrait of him and some African figures, and if he wasn’t impressed, he acted impressed. So as soon as John and I met each other—our eyes met—immediately we started reading each other’s mind. I mean I could read his mind and he would read my mind and we believed the same things. So he took what my mother gave me in terms of my culture and he helped me to articulate it—to crystallize it—into visual imagery. That’s what John did.

I had no idea that art like this existed in the whole wide world, and that students were doing it. That was awesome to me. I was awestruck by the talent, by the sophistication of its use, and by the self-identity, the self-respect that I would see in the expression of these students’ works. I would go in there every day—even on Sundays—and just sit on the steps and put my nose to the window and look until the window fogged up with my breath.

TSU was like a dream to me. I mean the campus was so beautiful; the buildings were so well made—the architecture, the greenery, the trees. It was a land of milk and honey to me, my early days at TSU. Of course it changed later on, you know. The Museum of Fine Arts had a relationship with TSU and with John. And Rice, too, to some extent—and the Jewish Community Center. Because you know, John had won the purchase prize in 1950 at the Museum of Fine Arts, even though he wasn’t allowed to go in there and get it.

Blacks were allowed to visit the museum only one day a week. Because the reception for the award had been scheduled for another day, the prizewinner could not in fact attend the function honoring him. Biggers and a colleague from the university were invited to a private viewing of the exhibition by the director. In the months following, Chillman was successful in abolishing the museum’s segregationist policies, and in increasing its accessibility to the black community. (Source: The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room, 1995 by Alvia Wardlaw)
So those kinds of relationships—art and people involved with art—this is what I experienced instead of just the metropolitan city, so to speak.

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Source:  OpenStax, Houston reflections: art in the city, 1950s, 60s and 70s. OpenStax CNX. May 06, 2008 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10526/1.2
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