Wadsworth Jarrell’s career unfolded alongside the Civil Rights Movement and Black Arts Movement of the mid-1960s, culminating in his pivotal role as a co-founder of the groundbreaking African American arts collective AFRICOBRA. From the outset, Jarrell and his fellow members sought to develop, define, and disperse a distinct black aesthetic, "an unequivocal visual vernacular rooted in a shared heritage, philosophy, political ideology, and expressive imagery."

Wadsworth Aikens Jarrell grew up as the youngest of six children living in the rural outskirts of Athens, Georgia. As a teenager, his interest in art was fueled by self-directed study of popular illustrated magazines of the day, such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. Following high school graduation, Jarrell was drafted into the US Army and stationed first in Louisiana, where he served as a company artist; he was subsequently deployed to Korea as a cannoneer. Upon his military discharge in 1953, he moved to Chicago and immersed himself in the lively cultural scene, particularly jazz and blues performances.

Jarrell enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954 and received a degree in advertising art and graphic design in 1958. By that point, however, his passion had shifted toward fine art. He spent the next year honing his painting skills during the day and working nights at a paint manufacturing plant. Throughout his professional life, Jarrell would struggle to balance his desire to be an independent artist against the need for reliable income. This concern found its match in Jarrell’s entrepreneurial spirit. Over the years, he would own or co-own an art gallery, educational toy company, and a mail-order business, in addition to his teaching roles at Howard University (1971–1977), Spelman College (1985), and the University of Georgia (1978–1988). He was employed as a commercial artist and photographer at various times and, during his tenure at Howard, earned an MFA.

When Jarrell settled in Chicago in 1953, he confronted the same pervasive prejudice he had known in the South: “It became obvious to me that regardless of which state I lived in, bigotry would follow me like a shadow.” The 1955 murder of Emmett Till, Dr. Martin Luther King’s protest marches, the Detroit riots, and the violence of the Civil Rights era ignited a “revolutionary” instinct in Jarrell—a call to liberate his art-making from white, Western paradigms in favor of a wholly black aesthetic.

As a member of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), Jarrell contributed to Chicago’s now-famous Wall of Respect (1967), a large-scale mural celebrating African American heroes. OBAC’s subsequent dissolution led to the 1968 formation of COBRA, the Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists, which was renamed AFRICOBRA the following year. The group was committed to using new philosophical and technical idioms to illuminate the black experience in America. These principles specified the use of bright, harmonious “Cool Ade” colors; “literal and figurative” luminosity; the “arbitrary use of light and line;” “free symmetry;” “making use of the entire space of the picture plane;” and the inclusion of written statements as a compositional element. Figurative images would be presented with “directness and dignity,” always accentuating the positive, and the black family would be celebrated. Jarrell created powerful portraits of African American leaders such as Angela Davis and Malcolm X, portrayed nightlife in jazz clubs, captured the excitement of horse racing, and incorporated African imagery, all in an increasingly rhythmic, abstracted style. In the 1990s, Jarrell began working in three dimensions, fashioning large painted sculpture that draws on African spirituality and symbology.