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Artist doesn't let Parkinson's stop his 'dream'
John Givens opens exhibit of his paintings at Averitt
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Statesboro artist John Givens says a few words after an introduction and a reading of his poetry during Thursday's opening of his exhibit at the Averitt Center. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Local artist John Givens debuted to the public Thursday more than 20 paintings from the portfolio he’s amassed over three decades. 

His show, entitled “In the Wake,” is the featured exhibition in the Main Gallery of the Averitt Center for the Arts, located downtown on East Main Street, and will be on display until March 2. 

The exhibit, sponsored by Francys and Meca Johnson, opened on Thursday with a reception in Givens’ honor and a reading of some of his poetry. 

It is the second time the artist’s work has been on public exhibit. 

Three years ago, as a temporary resident of the Heritage Inn, John Givens painted daily, despite a then recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He shared his work with Heritage’s activity director Susan Oliver and Oliver spotlighted his work at Heritage Inn during National Nursing Home Week that year.   

Yet that recognition only whet the appetite for the artist’s dreams and aspirations. 

“I want an art show,” Givens told a Statesboro Herald reporter. “I say to Parkinson’s, ‘There’s a fight going on.’ Parkinson’s ain’t gonna win. I’m gonna be running a very long time. I’m going to fight Parkinson’s through my art.”

Givens’ dream became a reality when his solo exhibit opened at the Averitt Center.

While Givens received no formal arts training, but, in the words of Averitt Center Curator Sheila Stewart Leach, “Givens has a keen eye, an exceptional feel for composition and color and a fine sensibility about his subject matter.”

Givens pieces reflect images from his childhood, the Civil Rights struggle or life in urban America. The artist uses French crayons, pastels, watercolors and acrylic to chronicle his memories of a time when the color of one’s skin was the most important thing.

With paintings entitled “Me and My Brothers on The Man’s Porch,” “Always on the Outside,” “Let My People Go…” and “The Lynching,” his powerful work showcases the struggles of integration, segregation and the civil rights movement. His self-taught, folk-art style relies on experience, community and heritage, rather than training.

Born in 1951 in Claxton, Givens was the final child of a sharecropping family. His family relocated to Portal shortly afterwards, and he spent most of his early childhood there. By the time he was in ninth grade, Givens had moved to Philadelphia with his mother and decided academia was not for him. 

Dropping out of school, Givens eventually joined the Navy and spent time in the Mediterranean and South America. Later careers included laborer, roofer and tree man. He dabbled with painting and poetry off and on through his adulthood and only became serious with it much later in life.

While a resident at Heritage Inn, Givens met Cheri Sheridan when she brought therapy dog “Bunsen” in for a visit. Sheridan and her husband Joe Drake became close friends of Givens and the couple was instrumental in helping him move into an apartment at The Summit and pursue his art show dream. 

Givens, who turns 68 in April, moved about the exhibit room on opening night, quietly visiting with the large crowd in attendance, but humbly said only a few words to the group as a whole. After thanking attendees for coming, Givens said, “It feels very good to have my work on exhibit. Now they’re not wondering about my abilities.”

When his brother, Carl Givens, who is featured in an acrylic piece laboring in a cotton field, left the exhibit, he shook his brother’s hand and said, “I’m proud of you.” 

To which Givens replied softly, “I’m proud of me, too.”