The South’s complex “racial past has long inspired powerful artistic statements from renowned South Carolina-based artist Leo Twiggs, yet the nine works created in the aftermath of the murders on the evening of June 17, 2015 at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston are perhaps the most compelling and poignant” of a career that has repeatedly defied racial prejudice and societal barriers.
Born in St. Stephens, South Carolina, Leo Frankin Twiggs received his undergraduate degree from Claflin University in nearby Orangeburg. Starting at Claflin in 1952, he studied under Arthur Rose, who had created the only art program available to African Americans in South Carolina that very year. Twiggs pursued further instruction at the Art Institute of Chicago and earned his master's degree from New York University, where he studied under acclaimed artist Hale Woodruff. Twiggs was later the first African American to receive his doctorate in Art Education from the University of Georgia.
In 1964, Twiggs returned to Orangeburg to take up a teaching position at South Carolina State University, where he started the art department and was instrumental in opening and running the I. P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium on campus. At this time, he began to experiment with the ancient process of batik: a traditional African method for decorating fabric using dye and wax. Twiggs uses batik as a way to create varying colors and textures that he could not get with conventional painting. He often uses the dye as paint instead of the customary method of dipping the fabric in the dye. He describes it as “long and tedious process, but, like jazz, it embraces improvisation and contemplation, important elements in my creative efforts.”
Many of Twiggs paintings contain various symbols and themes, including flags, railroad crossings, and shadowy figures. The Confederate flag is a subject some consider odd for an African American artist to paint. However, Twiggs sees this as a part of his history and something that should be acknowledged. In a statement about these paintings, he notes that "the Confederate Flag is an icon that Whites in the South love to remember, and most Blacks would like to forget; yet, within the dichotomy of these two views is the passion within us all to remember the past and to hold on to some special moment of triumph.” In addition to paintings of flags, Twiggs also uses images of railroad crossings. He feels that we all have something to “cross over” and likes to use his paintings as a means of self-discovery.
The nine paintings that comprise the Requiem for Mother Emanuel series were on view at TJC Gallery from August 4 through November 8, 2016. Private collectors from across the Southeast generously lent the first six works in the series to this showing, while the capstone three canvases are held by the Johnson Collection. The exhibition then traveled to the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, the I. P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium at South Carolina State University, the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University, and the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia.
The first visual artist to receive the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, Dr. Twiggs was presented with that same recognition in the category of lifetime achievement in 2017, and was also accorded the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest civilian honor. He has had over seventy one-man shows, and his work has received international recognition, with exhibitions held at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the American Crafts Museum, and in US Embassies in Rome, Dakar, and Togoland, among others. His work has been widely published in art textbooks and featured in several television documentaries.