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*Sam Gilliam was born on this date in 1933. He was a Black color field painter and lyrical abstractionist artist.
Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, the seventh of eight children born to Sam and Estery Gilliam. The Gilliams moved to Louisville, Kentucky, shortly after he was born. His father worked on the railroad; his mother cared for the family. At a young age, Gilliam wanted to be a cartoonist and spent most of his time drawing. In 1951, Gilliam graduated from Central High School in Louisville. After high school, he graduated from the University of Louisville with his B.A. in Fine Arts in 1955 as a member of the second class of Black undergraduate students. The same year, he held his first solo art exhibition at the University.
From 1956 to 1958, Gilliam served in the United States Army. He returned to the University of Louisville in 1961 and received his M.A. degree in painting as a student of Charles Crodel. While attending college, he befriended painter Kenneth Victor Young. In 1962, Gilliam married Dorothy Butler, a Louisville native and the first Black woman columnist at The Washington Post. In the 1960s, Gilliam was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed lithium. They divorced in the 1980s but have three daughters (Stephanie, Melissa, and Leah) and three grandchildren.
Gilliam listened to his college professor's advice to become a high school teacher and was able to teach art at Washington's McKinley High School. Gilliam was devoted to developing his painting during weekdays reserved for the classroom. In 1987, the Smithsonian Art Collectors Program selected Gilliam to produce a print to celebrate the opening of the S. Dillon Ripley Center in the National Mall. He donated his talent to produce In Celebration, a 35-color limited-edition serigraph highlighting his trademark use of color. The sale benefited the Smithsonian Associates, the continuing education branch of the larger Smithsonian Institution.
A major retrospective of his work was at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2005. He was named the 2006 University of Louisville Alumnus of the Year. In early 2009, he again donated his talents to the Smithsonian Associates to produce a 90-color serigraph entitled Museum Moment, which he describes as "a celebration of art." In 2003, a dedication of the installation of Gilliam's work, Matrix Red-Matrix Blue, was held at Rutgers Law School. Gilliam lived in Washington D.C. but, in 2010, sold his studio on 14th Street, N.W., just north of Colorado Avenue, for $3.85 million.
In 2011, his 'From a Model to a Rainbow' was installed in the Washington Metro Underpass at 4th and Cedar, NW. In 2016, Gilliam commissioned a piece as part of the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). He participated in the 2017 Venice Biennale, Viva Arte Viva, from May 13 - November 16, 2017. In 2018, his work was exhibited at Art|Basel. An exhibition at Dia: Beacon took place in August 2019. Other honors include eight honorary doctorates and the Kentucky Governor's Award in the Arts. He received several National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Longview Foundation Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He received the Art Institute of Chicago's Norman W. Harris Prize and an Artist's Fellowship from the Washington Gallery of Modern Art.
Gilliam lived with his long-time partner, Annie Gawlak, owner of the former G Fine Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. The pair were married in 2018 after a 35-year partnership. Sam Gilliam died of renal failure at his Washington, D.C., home on June 25, 2022.