In a 2009 reflection, James McMillan wrote that he had “understood quite early that my art could not be about ‘Art for Art’s sake’ only. It had to be about Life itself and at its fullest, as we live it and come to understand it.” For nearly seventy years as a practitioner and educator, McMillan boldly addressed the issues of racism and injustice on canvas and in the classroom, imbuing these daunting themes with notes of resilience and seeking always to put his “art to purpose.”

James McMillan’s parents—college graduates determined to confront prejudice in the Jim Crow South—were the exception, rather than the rule, in Sanford, North Carolina. Through their work as teachers in the public school system and leadership of the local NAACP chapter, McMillian learned that education and a sense of civic responsibility were essential to personal fulfillment and societal change. After graduating as class valedictorian at the age of fifteen, McMillan received a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, DC, the center of African American intellectualism at that time. The Howard community embraced the young prodigy, who studied under academic luminaries such as James Herring, James Porter, James Wells, Alain Locke, and Loïs Mailou Jones, a lifelong mentor. His studies were interrupted by World War II in 1943 when he was drafted into the US Navy. During three years of active duty—spent largely as an aviation mechanic in the Pacific theater—McMillan put his art skills to work, illustrating a base magazine and executing portrait commissions for fellow sailors.

Following military service, McMillan returned to Howard, completing his degree in 1947. That same year, he was awarded a competitive fellowship to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Towards the end of his time in Maine, McMillan was invited to establish and chair an art department at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Despite his ambivalence about teaching, he accepted the position largely for the financial stability it offered. The security of an academic career versus the freedom to spend his days making art was a recurrent conflict for McMillan. In the end, he saw the advantages to both: “I felt that teaching came with the requirement to continue learning, growing, experimenting, and that I must take care of my own creativity as I was coaxing it out of my students.” McMillan later earned an MFA in sculpture from Catholic University in 1952 and pursued advanced doctoral study at Syracuse University as a Danforth Foundation fellow.

After three years at Bennett, McMillan took a year-long European sabbatical in 1950, enrolling at the prestigious Académie Julian. Living in Paris had been a perpetual dream, and he flourished in the racially tolerant, cosmopolitan environment, befriending expatriate artists and intellectuals. He worked prodigiously—honing his draftsmanship, broadening his aesthetic range, and exhibiting at Parisian galleries—while reveling in the city’s liberal social milieu. But the harsh racial realities of home haunted him: “this couldn’t go on forever. . . . we couldn’t always hide out. . . . I felt I had to go back, and if there was anything that could be done, I had to be a part of it.” Dating to 1952, Mother and Child draws on traditional Madonna imagery, transferring the setting to a sharecropper’s shack in the segregated South and permeating it with bleak despair. As in many of his figural paintings, McMillan dramatically enlarges the subjects’ hands, a choice that has been ascribed to McMillan’s belief that “redemption is in your own hands.”

McMillan returned to Bennett for the second of three tenures at the college. During the Civil Rights Movement, he took part—and helped organize student engagement—in the historic 1960 Greensboro sit-ins. One of his most celebrated paintings, Four Freedom Builders, pays homage to the original four North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University student-protestors and is evidence of McMillan’s commitment to protesting racial oppression through both his actions and art, as are other canvases that explore the Holocaust and apartheid. In the early-1950s, he spent five years in Washington, DC, where he earned an MFA, began creating free-standing sculpture, was employed as a commercial artist, opened a short-lived gallery, and served as an interim instructor at his alma mater, before rejoining the faculty at Bennett in 1956. In 1969, McMillan was appointed chairman of the art department at Guilford College, a predominantly white Quaker institution in Greensboro, a post he held until his retirement in 1988. After leaving academia, he continued to travel, teach, produce art in a variety of media, exhibit at important national museums, and co-found the African American Atelier, a non-profit arm of the Greensboro Cultural Center.