John Outterbridge took a lot of Greenville with him when he left town to escape segregation in the 1950s, and he used that experience to help transform the art world.
Outterbridge, a graduate of the city’s black-only C.M. Eppes High School, died Nov. 12 at the age of 87. He was a central figure in the black assemblage arts movement, according to his family and reports of his death that have circulated in the art world and major newspapers across the country. He was former director of the Watts Towers Arts Center in his adopted home of Los Angeles where he died of natural causes.
Outterbridge was known for his evocative sculptures made from found or discarded materials including cloth, containers and metal, according to his obituary in The Washington Post. Some of his most celebrated work includes a series of doll figures, stitched from rags, hair and wood scraps, that reference the black tradition, community and folklore.
Pieces like “Broken Dance,” a figure atop an ammo box at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, have been featured in museums around the world.
Born March 12, 1933, Outterbridge was one of eight siblings who were the children of Olivia and John Ivery Outterbridge. His daughter, Tami, shared a black and white photo of him, three brothers and a sister on the front porch of the house in west Greenville where they were all born. “This picture captures a time in his life that my father so deeply loved and cherished,” she said, “and one that continued to represent itself in so very much of his work.”
Outterbridge showed a penchant for art while attending Eppes High School, according to his brother, Freddie, 82, who along with his wife, Lillian, have been community leaders in Greenville with a strong hand in establishing the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza at the Town Common.
“The art teacher loved my whole family because so many of us were artistic,” said Freddie, who became an artist himself and taught art in the county school system for 33 years.
As a teen, John Outterbridge was called upon for special school projects and won prizes for building complicated model airplanes. Freddie said that the art teacher had a great influence on all of his seven siblings.
“We had a big family,” Freddie said. “It was tough living, but we enjoyed each other.”
John Outterbridge said in a 1992 newspaper interview that the North Carolina of his memories was home to poets, musicians, gospel choirs and football and basketball teams. “Extended family took care of the old folks and didn’t allow kids to stray,” he said.
“Indeed, the social and cultural benefits of his childhood were so rich that Outterbridge probably would have stayed in Greenville if segregation hadn’t been so limiting and had he been less interested in travel,” the article stated.
Outterbridge wanted to attend then-East Carolina College in the 1950s, but the school did not allow black students at that time.
“I was raised in North Carolina, seven minutes from a university I couldn’t attend,” Outterbridge said in another interview. “That had an impression on me.”
Freddie’s wife, Lillian, said she once spoke to Outterbridge about how that segregation affected him.
“He said that was one of the things he regretted the most, because he felt he could have had a much greater contribution to this part of our state,” she said.
John Outterbridge often said his parents were the first artists he knew, describing a lifestyle fueled by creativity and resourcefulness.
His father, who “knew everybody and didn’t want to work for anybody,” fed his children by acquiring trucks and running a shipping and transport business. James Ivery scraped together a living by hauling and scavenging junk, which was often stored in the family’s backyard.
“His hauling put five kids through college,” Outterbridge said.
His mother, a poet and a pianist, took in washing and ironing for white families to help pay the bills.
It was through this lens much of Outterbridge’s art was envisioned.
He attended N.C. Agricultural & Technical State University in Greensboro, where he studied to become a mechanical engineer.
After a year at A&T, Outterbridge joined the military. He became a munitions expert in the Army, stationed in Germany from 1952-55. It was here, in an unfamiliar environment, his interest in art burgeoned.
While overseas, Outterbridge worked closely with people of many races. But when he returned to his home state, he still had to sit in the back of public buses.
This fueled him to do something constructive.
“With my military training, I would have been ready-material for the Black Panthers,” he once said, “But I became an activist artist instead.”
In 1956, he enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Art and later the American Academy of Art.
After marrying and moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, he became a highly respected community activist, educator and director of the Watts Towers Arts Center.
“My brother was a humanitarian,” Freddie said. “He had a love for people. He had a huge, big heart. That is what moved him to go out on his own.”
He was a pioneer in black assemblage art — made by assembling disparate elements, often everyday objects — scavenged by the artist or bought specially.
“Castoffs — what was junk to others — became resource, conversion, meaningful substance,” Outterbridge recalled in a 2015 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Images of that backyard museum still dance in my head. They play out in my thoughts and in my work.”
He added that part of the legacy he carried with him from his childhood was that, “art can be anything we want it to be, or need it to be at any given time” and that “you find your studio environment anywhere you are.”