Artist Willie Bigelow considers himself a Durham native, even though he hasn’t lived here his whole life. Born in Greensboro, Bigelow moved to Durham at age 8 so his father could be the pastor at Greater Saint Paul Baptist Church.
Bigelow, now 70, has dabbled in the arts since he was a child.
“My uncle used to give me a nickel for every little matchbook drawing that he would bring to me to draw,” he said. “He would pay me for it, I guess just as an incentive to keep doing it, and it kind of carried on all the way through high school.”
Bigelow was doing a one-man art show at the Hayti Heritage Center in 2015 when he approached the executive director, Angela Lee, about doing an event for Black History Month. Bigelow had the idea to create an art exhibit.
“It was Mr. Bigelow’s vision,” said Lee. “He had this idea, and I knew that it was a very good idea, but I knew he would have to really be responsible for reaching out and finding artists and making it happen. And he did.”
The event is called the Black History: Artists’ Perspectives Exhibition. The exhibit includes pieces that reflect “black activities.” This is the third year the Hayti Heritage Center has hosted the event, and it is Bigelow’s third year as the organizer.
“After that first year, it was so well received. The artists loved it, and the community loved it,” said Lee. “We extended it another month due to popular demand and might end up extending it this year just kind of by the looks of things.”
Most of Bigelow’s work is related to Durham’s black history. One of his pieces on display is a portrait of his aunt, Sandra Hughes, a Durham native and the first African-American woman in the Piedmont to host a talk show. Launched in 1974, it was called “Sandra and Friends.”
Hughes spoke at the exhibit’s opening reception on Feb. 2. She said she was deeply honored to be featured in a painting and to be a speaker at the reception. She spoke about the racism and discrimination she experienced in her early years as a television news broadcaster.
“I received death threats through mail and by phone. I even faced ugly confrontations on the streets,” said Hughes. “My one-year-old daughter was threatened and so was my husband. When I started doing a daily 30-minute talk show, the station got many bomb threats.”
None of this stopped Hughes. She believes it’s important to have this kind of program during Black History Month because people shouldn’t forget the struggles and injustices of racism.
“One sit-in participant, Frank McCann, told me many years ago that we must always tell our children and future generations about the struggles in order to move successfully into the future,” she said.
As a 70-year-old man, Bigelow isn’t sure how much longer he will organize the exhibit, but he wants to keep the tradition going.
“I hope to find some young person to help carry it on,” he said. “I would prefer it to be a person who is into the arts or an artist of some sort.”
Eventually, Bigelow wants to have enough participation in the exhibit that they will have to utilize the second level of the Hayti Heritage Center.
“This year we incorporated sculpture. We have always had some sort of music playing at the reception, but we’re going to always add something to it,” he said. “I want to see this exhibit expand to the point that it’s upstairs.”
The exhibit opened at the Hayti Heritage Center on Feb. 2. Unless Bigelow and Lee decide to extend the exhibit, it will run through March 11. There are 22 artists featured in this year’s exhibit.
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