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Sometimes artists find their calling serendipitously. At the age of twelve, Jefferson Eugene Grigsby Jr. was collecting payments on his newspaper delivery route. When he called on one neighbor, he noticed that the house was filled with art. That neighbor—Walker Foster, a self-taught stonemason and painter of African descent—offered to give the enterprising youth drawing lessons, and thus began a lifetime dedicated to art, art education, and the quest for social justice.

Grigsby was a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, the son of teachers who later lived in Charlotte and Winston-Salem. His father assumed his son, known as Gene, would never be able to support himself as an artist; nevertheless, young Grigsby pursued his passion. He enrolled at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte in 1933 but stayed for just one year before transferring to Morehouse College in Atlanta. As a “Morehouse Man,” Grigsby was able to study with Hale Woodruff, the innovative director of the art department at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). After earning his undergraduate degree in 1938, he moved to New York and pursued further instruction at the American Artists School, a progressive independent art school in New York that had been recommended by his fellow artist Robert Gwathmey.  

Arriving in New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Grigsby quickly became immersed in the energetic community of African American artists, writers, and dramatists, such as Langston Hughes, Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Norman Lewis. When Grigsby could no longer afford rent at the YMCA, Alston allowed him to live at the Harlem Art Workshop in exchange for janitorial work. He continued his education at Ohio State University, obtaining a master’s degree in 1940. During his time in Ohio, Grigsby expanded his artistic purview, delving into photography and textiles. Curiosity about other forms of artmaking became a trademark of Grigsby’s pedagogy, beginning with his first position at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1941. Meanwhile, his work was included in important exhibitions dedicated to African American artists, including Dillard University’s Exhibition of Paintings by Negro Artists (1938); the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Contemporary Negro Art (1939); and the Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro held at Tanner Art Galleries in Chicago in conjunction with the American Negro Exposition (1940).

During World War II, Grigsby enlisted, rose to the rank of army master sergeant, served under General George Patton with distinction. Using the photography skills he had developed in Ohio, he became the battalion’s unofficial photographer. Following his release from the military, he settled in Phoenix, Arizona, with his family. In 1946, he established the art department at segregated Carver High School, served as its chair, and taught all the art courses. Grigsby supplemented his paltry teaching salary with summer work as a farm laborer. Despite these financial challenges, he decided to pursue a doctoral degree at New York University using GI Bill benefits. He continued to teach during the academic year and spent summers at NYU, where he was reunited with Woodruff who had joined the art faculty there in 1946. Grigsby completed the doctoral program over a period of twelve years, finishing in 1963 with a dissertation comparing the masks of Northwest Native Americans with those of the Kuba Kingdom of the northern Congo.

Beginning in 1954, Grigsby taught at both segregated and integrated high schools in Phoenix; he worked as an adjunct at the college level before becoming a full-time professor at Arizona State University in 1966. His tenure there lasted until his retirement in 1988. Grigsby was one of six educators chosen by the Museum of Modern Art to teach in the Children’s Creative Center in the United States Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair held in Brussels. Further international travel influenced his 1977 book, Art and Ethnics: Background for Teaching Youth in a Pluralistic Society, which has been called a “landmark in the literature of art education.”

Grigsby was active in both community and professional organizations. He started art programs in housing projects and daycare centers, was involved in job training programs, and organized invitational exhibitions of work by inner-city students. He regularly took his high school students to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter residence in Scottsdale, and the famous architect visited some of Grigsby’s classes. Local, state, and national recognition followed in the form of leadership roles, awards, and an honorary doctorate. In 1966, Grigsby was one of twenty-five recipients of the National Gallery of Art Medal Award for Distinguished Services to Education in Art, an honor bestowed on the occasion of the museum’s twenty-fifth anniversary.  He served as president of the Arizona Art Education Association between 1986 and 1990, and as vice president of the National Art Education Association, from 1972 to 1974, which named him Art Educator of the Year in 1988. In 2007, he was recognized by the Congressional Black Caucus for “distinguished contributions to African American art and education.” In 2001, the Phoenix Art Museum organized The Eye of Shamba: The Art of Eugene Grigsby Jr., a retrospective of the artist’s sixty-five-year career. Shamba is an African word for cultivated ground.

Largely figurative and expressionist, Grigsby’s paintings and prints display the influence of African and Native American art. A recurring theme is that of family. Multitalented and competent in other media, he encouraged students to explore various forms, saying “an art teacher should not impose his limitations or specialty on his students.” One of Grigsby’s sons described his father’s art as ever evolving, pointing out his progression from “simply depicting his surroundings to attempting to influence them” as “he painted the powerless.”