“Art,” according to Leo Twiggs, “is the repository of human experience.” For over sixty years, his experiences—as an African American man born in the segregated South, as the first black graduate of the University of Georgia’s art education doctoral program, as a father, teacher, and artist—have infused his paintings. His life story includes personal and aesthetic confrontations with symbols of hate, particularly the Confederate flag.

The eldest of seven children, Leo Franklin Twiggs was in the tenth grade when his father died. He quickly assumed the role of head of the household and worked six days a week at the local movie theater in St. Stephen, South Carolina, to help with the family finances. When he secured a place at Claflin College, his widowed mother sold one of their three cows to pay his tuition. At Claflin, Arthur Rose, chair of the art department, mentored Twiggs both in and out of the classroom. In 1956, Twiggs graduated summa cum laude with majors in art, history, and English. After service in the Army Signal Corps and a brief time teaching at the high school level, he sought to advance his education. With no state-sponsored graduate program available to black South Carolinians at mid-century, he enrolled at New York University, where he studied under acclaimed artist Hale Woodruff.

With his master’s degree in art education in hand, Twiggs returned to Orangeburg in 1964 to join the faculty at South Carolina State University. During his thirty-four-year tenure, he started the art department and was instrumental in opening and directing the I. P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium on campus. Three years into his time at SCSU, the University of Georgia invited him to enter in its art education graduate program. For the following three years, Twiggs traveled between Athens and Orangeburg, and in 1970 became the first African American to earn a doctorate in art education from the institution. 

Around this time, Twiggs 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. Using the dye as paint (instead of the customary method of dipping the fabric in the dye), affords him a certain technical liberty which he likens to jazz in its embrace of "improvisation and contemplation, important elements in my creative efforts.” Many of Twiggs's paintings contain ominous iconography, including targets, railroad crossings, shadowy figures, and the Confederate flag. Twiggs approaches the controversial banner, presented as a tattered relic of the past, as representative of a dark chapter and vital lesson in Southern history. The exercise of reclaiming and defusing such malevolent icons, Twiggs believes, can serve as a portal for “crossing over.”

The nine works Twiggs created in the aftermath of the murders that occurred on the evening of June 17, 2015 at Charleston's historic Mother Emanuel AME Church are perhaps the most compelling and poignant of his sixty-year career. The Requiem for Mother Emanuel series began as a cathartic means of coping not only with the horrors of the event, but also in answer to the awe he felt in the days that followed, as he watched South Carolinians unite in what he describes as "the state’s most humane moment."

Dr. Twiggs retired from teaching in 1998 but retains the position of Distinguished Artist in Residence at Claflin University. His work has been the subject of over seventy one-man shows and 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. In addition, his images have been widely published in art textbooks and featured in several television documentaries. The artist was twice recognized with the South Carolina Governor's Award for the Arts in the categories of visual artist and lifetime achievement, and also received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest civilian honor, in 2017. In conferring the Georgia Museum of Art's prestigious Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Award to Twiggs in 2019, museum director William Eiland praised Twiggs’s remarkable professional and personal achievements: “He uses his art to forge a response to the human failings of hatred. . . . The art of Leo Twiggs is significant beyond measure for all Americans.”

In 2019, Dr. Twiggs was the guest curator of TJC's Elevation from Within: The Study of Art at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, an exhibition paying homage to HBCU alumni and professors whose educational backgrounds chronicle a vital chapter of American history and whose aesthetic achievements have made an indelible mark on this nation’s art.