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Profiling Sam Gilliam, World-Renowned Artist: Career, Family, Works, and Death

Sam Gilliam


Sam Gilliam, a world-renowned artist, was born on November 30, 1933, in Tupelo, Mississippi, to railroad worker Sam Gilliam, Sr. and homemaker Estery Gilliam. Sam, Jr. was the seventh of eight children. All of the Gilliam children were raised in Louisville, Kentucky after their parents relocated there.

Sam showed an interest in cartoon drawing as a child. This talent was evident at Louisville’s Madison Junior High School and Central High School. He received his diploma in 1951. Sam enrolled at the University of Louisville (UL) after graduating from high school and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Arts in 1955. As part of his graduation requirements, he presented an entire solo exhibition at the university.

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In 1956, Gilliam was drafted into the United States Army. He resumed art studies after receiving an honorable discharge in 1958, earning a Master of Arts degree in painting at the University of Louisville in 1961.

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Gilliam married Dorothy Butler, the first black female reporter for the Washington Post, in 1962, and the couple moved to the District of Columbia. Stephanie, Melissa, and Leah were their three daughters. While teaching painting at the Corcoran School of Art in the District of Columbia in 1965, Gilliam was the first to introduce the concept of a draped, painted canvas hanging without support. He began teaching painting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania in 1984.

While establishing his reputation as an artist, Gilliam spoke out against what he saw as inequity in the art world. In 1971, Gilliam boycotted a Whitney Museum art exhibition in solidarity with the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition of New York in order to protest the museum’s refusal to consult with black art experts when selecting art for the show. Gilliam also received the prestigious Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship that year. He became the first African American artist to represent the United States at the Italian Società di Cultura la Biennale di Venezia, an international art exhibition in Venice, Italy, a year later, in 1972.

Gilliam received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of Louisville, in 1980, and another from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, a decade later, in 1990. Last year, Gilliam’s painting “Forth” sold for $1.16 million at Sotheby’s London in the United Kingdom. This work’s medium was diluted acrylic on raw canvas, which was folded, creased, and soaked to allow pigments to infuse into unexpected chromatic compositions.

In 2016, Gilliam was commissioned to create a work for the grand opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. In 2017, he returned to the Italian Società di Cultura la Biennale di Venezia for the second time, exhibiting in the Central Pavilion (Giardini) and the Arsenale.

Sam Gilliam’s work is housed in 56 museums across the United States and France as part of their permanent collections. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Galerie Darthea Speyer in Paris, France are all part of this collection.



Written by How Africa News

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