By Christine Snyder

This week’s featured artist in honor of Black History Month is Sam Gilliam, a contemporary painter who is known as an innovator for his work with draped canvas.  Much like more well known artists such as Jackson Pollock, whose paint dripping technique was an exploration of process and materials, Gilliam’s canvas draping technique blurred the lines between art and its process.  Gilliam’s unique and innovative work can be seen as an emblem of his life, in which he persevered through serious mental and physical health issues and is now producing some of his best art well into his eighties.

Gilliam was born in 1933 in Tupelo, Mississippi and was one of 8 children.  He had a happy childhood, and was interested in art from a young age.  He went on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, serve 2 years in the armed forces, and complete his Master of Fine Arts degree.  Sam began experimenting with his signature style while working on a more traditional painting.  The canvas he was using fell to the floor, and its disheveled appearance inspired him.  He then began intentionally pleating, scrunching, and draping the canvases and applying paint to the folds, challenging the expectations of what a painting should look like.  He was the first artist to take the painting off the wall and out of the box. 

In the 1960s, Sam was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with Lithium.  Sadly, decades later, he suffered severe kidney damage as a side effect of the medication.  He stopped taking the medication, but the illnesses lead him down into a deep depression.  He was hardly able to leave his home for 3 years; however, his work was still being recognized.  His art was being included in exhibitions at galleries and museums.  At one point, a longtime friend contacted Sam and asked if he would do a show at his gallery.  Sam accepted.  This marked the beginning of Gilliam’s comeback story.  He was able to regain strength, improve his health, and get back into making art–the finest of his career.

Sam’s most recognized work–the draped, painted canvases–struck me as an analogy for his life.  When I heard the story of the dropped canvas on the floor, inspiring him to drape it and paint its misshapen form, I wondered if he felt that it represented his life.  All individuals to some extent have the background of their lives they keep private in addition to the public persona they allow others to see.  Similarly, paintings typically have a background–such as canvas–that is hidden from view, only allowing the top part (the art) to be seen.  Most canvases are perfect, solid, and smooth.  In Gilliam’s case, the background of his life included struggles with mental health.  His life, like the canvas, was messy and bumpy.  And also like the canvas, even though it was barely clinging on at times, his life turned into something beautiful.  Not only were the backgrounds of his paintings imperfect, but they became a central theme of his art.  While the backgrounds of most artists go unnoticed, his is the focal point.  Maybe he’s allowing us to see the background of his life, not just the curated public image.  Maybe he wants us to see the struggles and the challenges he’s faced–and at the same time–see the beauty.  I hope that learning about Sam and seeing his art inspires others to be kind to themselves and others–even with our imperfections–so that everyone can receive the same support and love that he did.


Skip to content