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 William (Billy) Thomas Blackburn  (1908 - 1993)



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Lived/Active: California/North Carolina      Known for: narrative, regionalist painting, commercial design

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William Thomas Blackburn
An example of work by Billy Blackburn
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following biography is submitted by Barry G. Huffman, who wrote the text for the article, "William Thomas Blackburn:  An Artist Comes Home", published in American Art Review, April 2006.  Huffman was the Guest Curator for an exhibition of work by Blackmun, May 6-August 27, at the Hickory Museum of Art, Hickory, North Carolina.

The story of Billy Blackburn is the story of a man, who as a young boy, dared to dream of a life as an artist who could create images that would impact the world he knew.  He was able to achieve the first-rate education, the training, the travel and the contacts that very few young men from the rural South could hope to have.

Blackburn returned home from Europe to tell stories of sitting in French cafes with men who would become recognized world wide for their talents, and, years later, of movie stars and entertainers he met in Los Angeles.  He found his creative voice in the early 1940s when he followed the Regionalists, producing narrative paintings about life around him, from a care-free childhood with many friends, to the dignity of black people who lived in difficult times on the edge of his home town, to smoky saloons, to black people fighting for recognition and standing in the theatrical world of New York.  The paintings that survive from this era aptly underscore his passion for art, his considerable talent and skills and his personal connection to his subjects.
It is never easy to survive as a working artist. Blackburn found creative employment designing windows and displays for one of the country's great department stores.  Art movements passed him by.  He retired to his home town in North Carolina to produce a body of work that, although very skillful, lacked the vibrancy of his early work.  In the 30 years he lived in California, he became lost to his home community.  After his death, some of his paintings surfaced, and his talent was apparent.  This exhibition is the story of Billy Blackburn's life and his work.

William Thomas Blackburn, known as "Billy", was born in Catawba County, North Carolina, on October 3, 1908.  The son of a doctor who was active in the community, Billy and his sister Margaret grew up in a quiet small Southern town where family and friends were valued, and where an idyllic childhood was possible.

In 1926 Billy was graduated from Hickory High School.  He then entered the most prestigious art school on the east coast, the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, located in Philadelphia, spending three years there as a student.

Founded in 1805, the PAFA is the oldest academy and museum in the United States.  It hosted annual juried exhibitions from 1805 through 1969, opening its doors to present to the public of Philadelphia the finest art and sculpture created in the country.  The Academy held a position of excellence, educating some of the finest artists in America.  Truly, the list of artists who either were educated there or who were exhibited in the galleries includes the best of the best.  Bill Blackburn journeyed from his home in the rural South to enter the heady atmosphere of fine art, melding into the flow of emerging artists and great masters.

The year following his studies in Philadelphia, he attended the Grand Central School of Art in New York City.  Billy paid for his classes there by painting side show posters at Coney Island.

Blackburn returned to Hickory to try to support himself as an artist.  He completed a few portraits.  The early works are academic, reflecting his education.

A small number of these paintings survive today; with one or two possibly from his student days, when he ventured into the Pennsylvania countryside to paint country farm scenes.

The economic hardships of the Depression denied Blackburn a steady source of income.  The next few years found him journeying to Paris to enroll at the Academie Julian like so many American artists before and after him, then on to Florence's National Academy to fulfill an eight month scholarship awarded by the Italian dictator Mussolini.

Always returning to Hickory, the town was his home base, and the adventures of a native artist frequently made the pages of the local newspaper.  Blackburn maintained a studio above a store in town, sometimes inviting the public to see his latest work.  When Frank Buck's jungle moving picture Bring 'Em Back Alive, released in 1932, arrived in Hickory, Billy caused much comment when he painted "a wild jungle scene, showing one of the highlights of the picture - a fight between a large Bengal tiger and a python snake in the wilds of Africa. The scene is amazingly realistic and drew a good size crowd around it this morning, when it was transferred from Blackburn's art studio to the theatre."

In the 1930-31 Hickory City Directory, Blackburn was listed as a student.  In 1935 he was describe as an artist, as he was in 1937-38 and 1941-42.  He placed an advertisement in the 1935 City Directory for the French Cottage, "Hickory's Own Night Club" for dining and dancing and private parties.  Business was probably good because he apparently offered illegal beverages, but indignant clergy complained until the police closed his doors. 

Blackburn left the area for several long periods, including returning to Philadelphia to live at least twice.  Letters home and news articles indicate that he traveled to San Diego and Chicago to work on fair murals, to Dallas to work on the Texas Centennial Fair in 1936, possibly for the WPA.  While in Texas, he painted in the ranch sections of the state, and in the Indian sections of Oklahoma.  He was living in Philadelphia in 1937 when his father died and again in 1941 and 42 when he entered paintings in an exhibition in Chapel Hill, NC, and in the 136th annual exhibition at the PAFA. He had two paintings in a Carnegie exhibition in Pittsburg, and he painted a school mural in Philadelphia.  In 1939 he spent most of a year painting in Acapulco, Mexico.

In the mid-1940's Blackburn moved to California to work at United Artists Studios' art department, building and painting backgrounds for movies, including animated features.  In October, 1945, he joined the art department of Bullocks Wilshire department store, quickly advancing to chief designer for windows and displays.  Photographs of many of his window designs show almost surreal constructions of mannequins floating in the air and among seaweed. His art background is evident in the whimsical, dramatic and eye-catching displays of the latest fine fashions. . Bullocks Wilshire was well known as the emporium of movie stars and moguls. Blackburn left Bullocks in 1956 to pursue a desert land development project.  In 1958 he was offered the opportunity to return to Bullocks to head the art and design department at a new store opening in Santa Ana.  He remained there until he retired in the mid-1970s.  After a brief sojourn in San Juan Capistrano, where he painted a few mission paintings, he made his last move, returning to Hickory.

In October, 1976, Blackburn purchased a condominium where he lived until the last two years of his life.  Developing Alzheimer's disease, he moved into Margaret's home on Lake Hickory in 1991 until he required nursing home care just before his death on August 23, 1993.  Ironically, that was the same year that Bullocks Wilshire closed its doors.

Recognition of Bill Blackburn's paintings, the start of the search for his work and the story of his life hinged on one local artist, Joe LaFone, who found a still-life paining in an antique shop in a near-by town.  At an estate sale after his death, Billy's family sold some paintings.  Joe made the rounds of shops and talked to antique dealers until he located the owners of most of the paintings.  Joe knew of Blackburn and his fine education.  After contacting Billy's nephew Tom Walton, Tom found 200 Lake Hickory paintings and a few others stacked one upon another in an unheated shed.

His Work
William Blackburn received the finest art education to be had in the late 1920s and 1930s.  The Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia, Grand Central School of Art in New York City, the Acadamie Julian in Paris and the National Academy in Florence introduced him to excellent instruction and to the artistic developments of the times.  Surely, in Philadelphia he sought out classes taught by fellow North Carolinian Francis Speight, who taught drawing and painting at PAFA from 1925-1961. Known for his paintings of the town of Manayunk, Speight may have inspired Blackburn's painting of a rural scene from that area, as well as a watercolor of a farm.

After he returned from Europe, Blackburn continued working in an academic style when he sought to support himself by painting portraits in Hickory.  Billy Blackburn's greatest recognition as an artist came in the early 1940s.  Moved by the work of Thomas Hart Benton, who exhibited at the PAFA in 1930, 1931, 1934 and nearly every year through 1945, Blackburn found a style, a palette, a source and social direction that fit him perfectly.

Coming of age as an artist in the 1930s must have been both heady and difficult.  European artists had led the way into abstraction.  The controversial Armory Exhibit of 1913 had introduced abstraction to the American public and to great ridicule.  The seed of abstract expression slowly germinated and became accepted by artists, if not the public. 

In the crosscurrents of American art were artists who believed in a true American art that interpreted the daily lives of the people who made the country strong, from field workers to housewives to defenders of justice.  These artists, led by Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood had been influenced by the Group of Eight, or the Ashcan Group, who painted urban scenes and the often difficult lives of the city poor.  The validity of these subjects and the quality of the paintings slowly achieved recognition.  The stage was set for the Regionalists to take their art across the country, to define the essence of real American diversity in culture and art.  The country, as well, was ready for the positive messages of the Regionalists as the Depression years receded.

The American Scene Movement in art of the 1930s and 1940s was dominated by the Regionalists, who tended to portray the strengths of the country, and the Social Realists, who tended to portray problem social issues.  Sometimes the two over-lapped subjects.  The Social Realists viewed the country's problems as fixable, and considered calling attention to problems part of their duty as citizen-artists.
Bill Blackburn produced his finest work in the 5 to 7 years before he went to work for Bullocks in California.  He painted in a style that was obviously related to Thomas Benton and the Regionalists; also, in some cases, it expressed the naiveté of the Frenchman Henri Rousseau.  He produced narrative pictures related to an idealized rural childhood.  He painted pictures of black Americans drawn from people he knew from Hickory, combined with musical and theatrical black people from his travels.  Also, he painted the pain, fatigue and despair blacks were suffering in the South and elsewhere.

In a 1944 interview with the local Hickory newspaper on the announcement of the organization of the Hickory Museum of Art, Blackburn was excited about the opportunities the Museum would offer the community, especially the children.  At home recovering from a case of flu, he went into some detail explaining how he had become interested in painting black people three years before, and the success he was having with his work.

The article continued:  "Billy Blackburn never uses a model for his work.  He does all his painting in his studio from memory, and, he says, most of the things he paints are the things which he remembers from his childhood in the South.  Recently, he began a series of studies of Negroes in the current Broadway production, Carmen Jones."

He has had paintings exhibited principally in Philadelphia, where he makes his home, in Washington at the Corcoran Gallery, and at the New York World's Fair.  He always sends his things back to North Carolina, however, and has had many on display at the Mint Museum in Charlotte.

Billy Blackburn does not make his living from his bright, action-filled canvasses; for the past year and a half he has been doing window displays for Philadelphia stores, and he says the work there is much the same as painting. 'You approach it the same way,' he said.  'It's a matter of color and composition and design.'

Inherent dignity is present in Blackburn's figures at a time when Negroes were frequently portrayed as caricatures in popular culture.  Blackburn is making a social statement about human value, and preparing the way, as many other white artists did, for integration coming in the 1960s.

Two of the paintings portray the great pain and despair of blacks in the 1940s.  The stunning picture of the man passed out on a harlequin blanket conveys the desperation of the times: it needs no title to explain it.  The blanket and mask reference a sixteenth century Italian play that features a character who is a poor servant, a buffoon without education, speaking a dialect no one understands.  Harlequin is not a villain; he just tries to survive.  He finds solace only from the wine he drinks.  The rolling hills in the background echo the landscape of Hickory in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The elderly woman working in the cotton field has a title written on the back.  Dixie Guillotine must surely refer to the extreme harshness of her life.  Hard labor, even for a woman of her age, was often the single means of survival.  Picking cotton, with its stress to the back, pain to the hands from the sharp cotton bolls, and the intense summer heat was especially difficult.  There is no respite for her.

Little is known about Blackburn's painting during the years he worked for Bullocks in California.  It is impossible to think that he did not paint, but his work during this long period of his life is a mystery.  Perhaps his job at Bullocks satisfied his need to create.  Billy kept nearly 250 black and white photographs of his window displays.  He used props and patterns to set small stages for mannequins in often exaggerated poses.  If he had given up painting during this period of his life, he replaced it with surrealism and conceptual art in the department store's windows.  His thirty years of employment at Bullocks validates the energy and artistic merit of his work there.

Late in his life, landscapes became his focus.  The style of these paintings is realism, landscapes without people.  The vibrant, pulsating paintings of rural Southern people, black and white, were finished.

In returning to his home town in retirement, Billy Blackburn seems to have been pulled by his childhood memories and friends.  The town must have seemed quiet after the excitement of Hollywood, famous people and stylish settings.  Indeed, he seems to have been pulled home to the river, to Cripple Creek where he learned to swim, to the Little River dam where he went swimming with his friends, and to the home of his sister on the lake created when the river was dammed in 1927.  In the last years of his life, he painted more than 200 pictures, most of Lake Hickory, most on canvas board.

The lake paintings exclude the development that had occurred during his absence.  The paintings portray quietness and aloneness, as if his world had come to focus only on the lake views before him and his paints.  Only one is peopled with a black couple fishing from a boat.  He told his nephew that he no longer had the skills to paint people.

These quiet paintings resonate from within by virtue of his skills with paint and his mastery of brush strokes. In his paintings of the 1930s and 40s, his brush stokes were regressive and nearly flat, so that the image emerged smoothly from the canvas.  In the lake paintings, he frequently used the brush dramatically in short strokes to create a dynamic atmosphere.  Thunderheads roll in from the west; sun rays cut in from the east; the water reacts to the weather above.  Blackburn expertly captured the weather and the sky.  As a viewer moves his position to study the painting, the sky changes in front of his eyes.  Clouds seem to darken and move closer to the lake, as if rain has just started to fall.  The painting appears to change as light moves across it.  Most of the lake paintings are sunny.  However, the single pine on a stormy day, may eloquently speak of human emotion: personal thoughts he sought to subdue with these last paintings.

Blackburn continued to paint and to enter local art shows.  He surely must have been disheartened by the lack of interest his paintings elicited.  Even in a small town in the 1980s, the public was more accepting of at least some abstraction.

Billy Blackburn was one of many artists who were working in a time of great change.  Realism, the art that nurtured and nourished them in their youth, was on the wane as the art world moved steadily toward abstract expressionism.  What to do?  Thomas Hart Benton held staunchly to the style he mastered.  Others left realism behind to produce art that had no hold on their hearts.

Coming home, Blackburn turned to his beloved river to quietly paint away his past with all its bright-hued vitality.  Surely, it was a well-lived life.  He left dozens of paintings to say that even great skill can not hold off change.  Thankfully, he left enough to tell his story of art and artists and of coming home to the place he loved.


These Notes from AskART represent the beginning of a possible future biography for this artist. Please click here if you wish to help in its development:
William (Billy) Thomas Blackburn was born in Hickory, NC on Oct. 3, 1908. Blackburn studied at the PAFA, NAD, and Académie Julian in Paris. He worked in Los Angeles during the 1940s and 1950s as an art director at Bullock's. He died in Bethlehem, NC on Aug. 28, 1993.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Who's Who in American Art 1947-53; Social Security Death Index (1940-2002).
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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