Loading...

Described as “an artist of consequence,” William Etienne Pajaud Jr. is remembered not only for the works of art he executed—primarily bright, spontaneous watercolors—but also for the way he championed fellow African American artists, fiercely advocating for their exposure, exhibition opportunities, and commercial success in the art market of the 1960s and beyond. In a later UCLA oral history interview, Pajaud recalled "there were some naive souls who had no idea there were black artists" in that era.

Pajaud was born and spent much of his childhood in New Orleans, where his father was a jazz musician who frequently played at funerals. Like a surprising number of artists, Pajaud’s interest in art was kindled during a prolonged illness. When hospitalized as a young boy, he was inspired by his roommate, an elderly cartoonist, who encouraged William to draw every day. As a teenager, Pajaud and his mother lived in Tennessee and Texas, and he was physically injured in two incidences of racial violence. Having received a full academic scholarship to attend Xavier University, he returned to New Orleans to study art.

Following the completion of his degree in 1946, Pajaud lived briefly in Chicago before being drawn to the warmer climate of Los Angeles in 1949. His first art-related job in the city was as a necktie designer for the Countess Mara company. He would hold several other posts—sign painter, janitor, repairman—before enrolling at Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts) in 1952. Despite the prejudice he encountered from some of the school’s alumni and administrators, he became the first African American student and graduate, all the while holding a full-time position as a postal clerk. As he pursued a degree in graphic design, he continued to paint for pleasure, creating many works imbued with Asian motifs.

Pajaud’s personal passion and chosen profession found their ideal consummation in 1957 when he accepted a position as art director for the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, one of the city’s largest and most successful black-owned businesses. Over the course of his thirty-year career at Golden State, Pajaud rose to the position of vice-president and, more significantly, founded the firm’s corporate art collection in 1965. Established to celebrate the company’s fortieth anniversary, the remarkable inventory of works by African American artists from around the country was assembled on a very limited budget with curatorial acumen and tenacity. Occasionally, Pajaud would trade his own paintings to obtain key pieces for Golden State. By the time of his retirement in 1987, the collection of over two hundred objects included works by Charles Alston, Richmond Barthé, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff, among others. Pajaud was also involved in multiracial initiatives—such as the American Friends Service Committee and the Tutor/Art program for black youth in underserved communities—and maintained a robust exhibition schedule.

Pajaud claimed that he “didn’t start painting black’ until 1965, in the wake of the Watts riots. He eschewed overt “propaganda” works and instead used, as one scholar wrote “prosaic content to reveal large social truths.” African American women were a frequent subject, chosen by the artist to underscore their centrality to black families and culture; in his Mujeres series, Pajaud highlighted the ordinary women he encountered while traveling in Mexico. Themes from the Old Testament and New Orleans jazz recur as well. Across his body of work, Pajaud’s goal was never financial, but fundamental: “I would like to have [viewers] stirred, to feel something within themselves. . . . I give you my heart and soul when I paint a picture.”