| Billy Blackburn is primarily known as William (Billy) Thomas Blackburn
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An example of work by Billy Blackburn
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|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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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