James McMillan: Discovering an African-American Master

Two upcoming museum exhibitions about James McMillan in Greensboro, NC showcase an impressive body of artwork by an overlooked and accomplished African-American artist. Curated by Dr. Alma Adams, Professor of Art and Gallery Director at Bennett College, and Charlotte Sherman, co-founder of Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles, The Art of James C. McMillan: Discovering an African American Master, which opens March 20th, presents two separate retrospectives, and brings his work to national prominence. 

The 85-year-old artist, who attended Howard University and received an art fellowship in 1947 to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, chaired the art department at Bennett College in Greensboro three different times—from 1947 to 1950; 1952 to 1953; and 1956 to 1969. While studying in Paris at the Académie Julian, outside the confines of the racially segregated South, he truly developed as an artist. McMillan described this time in an interview with Sherman, “After my experiences in the U.S. Navy, I knew that portraiture was the direction in which I wanted to go. I wanted to combine that form with my experience and others in America. That was a part of my drive in Paris. What I began to understand most clearly about my life, especially after returning from the service, was the impact of racism. My two years in Paris…where I was accepted as an individual and as a black artist, marked the first time I was able to meet many others from different parts of the world. I learned about their living conditions and hardships. And my views about injustice and the place it occupied in a large scope of universal humanism was born.”

According to Shawnya L. Harris, Director of University Galleries at North Carolina A&T State University, the extensive survey of his paintings, sculpture and drawings, “reveals a humanist. His life portrays artistic intelligence, grace under fire and perseverance against the odds. His artistic achievements are a tribute to the many mentors who gave him a lifetime of encouragement.” Since his “discovery” in 2004 by prominent African-American art collectors, McMillan’s artistic accomplishments are now being championed—culminating in these exhibitions and the accompanying catalogue.
James McMillan, Four Dream Builders, oil on masonite, 2001. Courtesy of www.jamesmcmillan.com.