Who Is Faith Ringgold?
While working as an art teacher in public schools, Faith Ringgold began a series of paintings called American People, which portrayed the civil rights movement from a female perspective. In the 1970s, she created African-style masks, painted political posters and actively sought the racial integration of the New York art world. During the 1980s, she began a series of quilts that are among her best-known works, and she later embarked on a successful career as a children’s book author and illustrator.
Faith Ringgold was born Faith Will Jones was born on October 8, 1930, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. She was the youngest of three children born to Andrew and Willi Jones, who raised their children during the Harlem Renaissance and exposed them to all of its cultural offerings. As she suffered from asthma as a young girl, Ringgold spent a great deal of time at home with her mother, a fashion designer who taught her to sew and work creatively with fabrics.
Throughout her grammar and high school years, Ringgold also developed an interest in art, and by the time she graduated became intent on turning her interest into a career. Enrolling at the City College of New York in 1950, she wound up studying art education when the liberal arts department denied her application. That same year, she married musician Robert Wallace. In 1952, they had two daughters, one born in January and one born in December. Faith and Robert would divorce several years later, when he developed a heroin addiction that would eventually lead to his death.
After receiving her B.S. in Fine Art and Education in 1955, Ringgold spent the latter half of the decade juggling several different roles. While looking after her children, she taught art in the public school system and also enrolled in a graduate studies program at City College. Ringgold began developing her own art, which at this time was fairly conventional. Ringgold received her M.A. in art in 1959 and later toured Europe, visiting many of its finest museums.
The early 1960s would prove to be a pivotal period for Ringgold. She married Burdette Ringgold on May 19, 1962 and also embarked on creating a series of paintings — American People — that today rank among her most important work. Centered around themes from the civil rights movement, paintings such as Neighbors, Die and The Flag Is Bleeding all capture the racial tensions of the era. Ringgold’s first solo gallery show in 1967 featured the American People series.
Early into the 1970s, Ringgold’s art took a new direction. She was deeply affected by her visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and its collection of Tibetan thangka paintings in particular. Upon returning to New York, Ringgold began to incorporate similar elements in her work, painting with acrylic on canvases with fabric borders and creating cloth dolls and soft sculptures, including Wilt, which depicted basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain
After leaving her teaching job in 1973, Ringgold was free to focus on her art more. She began to pursue working in other mediums. She first branched out with a collection of portrait sculptures called The Harlem Series and then she created African-influenced masks that were included in performance pieces. During this period she also made posters in support of the Black Panthers and activist Angela Davis.
After attempting unsuccessfully to have her autobiography published, at the turn of the decade Ringgold discovered a new way to tell her story. Once more drawing her inspiration from Tibetan art, and in honor of her mother’s early influence, Ringgold began a series of quilts that are perhaps her best-known work. She assembled the first quilt, Echoes of Harlem in 1980 (a year before her mother passed away) and went on to make numerous others, eventually incorporating text as well. Among her narrative quilts are Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima (1983), the Michael Jackson tribute Who’s Bad? (1988) and her most famous offering, Tar Beach (Part 1 from the Woman on the Bridge series (1988), which is now part the Guggenheim Museum’s permanent collection.
Later Life and Career
Meanwhile, Ringgold had become a professor of art at the University of California at San Diego, where she taught until 2002. Displaying yet more talent, beginning in the 1990s, Ringgold embarked on a literary career, publishing the children’s book Tar Beach, which she adapted from her quilt of the same name in 1991. In 1995, she published her memoir, We Flew over the Bridge; she has now written and illustrated more than 15 other children’s books.
In recognition of her contributions as an artist and activist, Ringgold has received countless honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship for painting and an NAACP Image Award. Her work continues to be exhibited in major museums around the world.
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