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Ann Arbor 200

Jon Onye Lockard: Painter, Professor, Activist & Griot


“Lockard the teacher, the mentor and a griot…[Griot—a member of a class of traveling poets, musicians, (artists) and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa.]" – Dr. Ed Jackson Jr.

Artist Jon Onye Lockard At Washtenaw Community College, November 7, 1997
Artist Jon Onye Lockard At Washtenaw Community College, November 7, 1997

Known for his portraits, murals, and his inspirational teaching style, Jon Onye Lockard was a prolific artist, educator, and mentor. He made countless contributions not just in Ann Arbor, but around the globe. Jon is remembered for his unwavering devotion to teaching and promoting the artistic representation of Blackness, rebutting centuries of racist imagery, with a steadfast commitment to social justice and to the broader civil rights movement: 

“Painting throughout his life different depictions of Blackness in its myriad of possibilities brought him great joy … He wanted the world to see how beautiful Blackness was, because growing up at a time when that was not emphasized impacted him to want things to change and be better.” - Elizabeth James, former student and current staff in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies [D’AAS]

Mural Painting In Midtown Park At Huron & Main Street, November 1973
Mural Painting In Midtown Park At Huron & Main Street, November 1973

Today, murals seem almost commonplace. They are found all around town created by a range of artists, executed in many styles. This was not always the case, and in 1982, former student, artist, and professor Mike Mosher wrote: “the majority of murals in schools, institutions and on the street in the Ann Arbor area, when not directly involving Lockard, are the work of students who’ve passed through his classes and influence.” Though many of these early student murals are no longer here, many of his works remain around town. 

“Working in murals demands a sense of consciousness, a sense of the rhythms happening in the community, the country, or the world.” — Jon Onye Lockard

From the Ann Arbor News, May 22, 1981
From the Ann Arbor News, May 22, 1981

Locally, Lockard’s murals can be found at University of Michigan’s residence halls and multicultural lounges in South and West Quad. Numerous paintings and a mural honoring legendary Washtenaw Community College [WCC] faculty member Dr. Morris Lawrence Jr. are on WCC’s campus. Nearby universities and museums proudly present his works, such as his renowned mural ‘Continuum' at Wayne State University’s Manoogian Center. His work is collected internationally and can be found in public and private collections.

The Early Years of John Melvin Lockard

John Lockard, 1949 from the Arrow, Eastern High School
John Lockard, 1949 from the Arrow, Eastern High School

“One must know where you came from to know where you are going” – Jon Lockard

Jon Onye Lockard was born as John Melvin Lockard January 25, 1932 in Detroit to Cecil E. Lockard and Lillian Jones. He was the middle child, with an older brother named Cecil E. Lockard, after their father. Cecil Jr. would also become an influential figure in Ann Arbor, working as a photographer for the Ann Arbor News for decades.

John Lockard was born during the Great Depression, came of age at the start of white flight in the Detroit area, and experienced unofficial segregation at the schools he attended in the region. The young Lockard was educated at Eastern High School in Detroit, where he had already begun participating in the arts, sports, and acted as a member of the yearbook staff, graduating in 1949. 

John Lockard, Arrow Staff, 1949, from the Arrow, Eastern High School
John Lockard, member of Eastern High School's yearbook staff, 1949

After high school, he began working at Ovelton Sign where he experienced harsh working conditions and segregation. He attended Meinzinger School of Art in Detroit and, shortly after, Wayne State University where he would earn his Bachelor’s. Then, he received his Master’s degree at University of Toronto in 1958 before returning to the Detroit area and establishing himself in Ann Arbor.

Jon Onye Lockard: A Great Teacher Emerges

During this period, John dropped the ‘h’ in his name, officially becoming Jon Lockard. Later in the 1960s, a member of his travel group in Nigeria said he should be “Onye Eje/Ije”, which in the Igbo language means “artistic traveler” or “the traveling artist who has many friends,” a name he would adopt, changing his name officially to Jon Onye Lockard.

In November 1964, Lockard celebrated the grand opening of the Ann Arbor Art Center, (of no relation to the current Ann Arbor Art Center–which was, at the time, the Ann Arbor Art Association) his first studio at 215 S. Fourth Ave. During this time he was working “nine days a week” in Ann Arbor, but he still lived in Detroit. He would move to Ann Arbor by 1971, around the same time his studio moved into the old Ann Arbor Railroad Depot building at 416 S. Ashley.

From the Huron Valley Ad-Visor, September 1, 1965
From the Huron Valley Ad-Visor, September 1, 1965

In 1968, advocacy from Black scholars and students worked to include Black Studies programs and push for higher enrollment of Black students, a movement that was gaining traction across the country. The Daily reported in 1969 that the LSA program would begin offering an Afro-American Studies major. 

Black Artist's Festival Advertisement, Michigan Daily, November 13, 1969
Black Artist's Festival Advertisement, Michigan Daily, November 13, 1969

At the University of Michigan, Jon quickly found himself inhabiting several roles: supporting the Black Action Movement, and participating in the first annual Black Artist's Festival in 1969. The following year he co-founded the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies (Renamed D’AAS in 2011) as an interdisciplinary program that would focus on histories that had been ignoredor worse, taught with factual inaccuracy by other history departments. Elizabeth James reflects on the personal significance of this change: “The History of Art department wasn't offering courses in [the African diaspora] at that time, so I checked with the then-Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. Jon Lockard was teaching a survey course on the arts of Africa. It was an amazing experience that transformed my life.” 

In December 1969, Lockard was brought on at WCC as part of the newly founded Black Studies Program. In 1970, Lockard would organize the first show of Black students’ works in an outdoor exhibit, while the campus expanded programs for Black students through the Black Studies Program and the creation of the WCC Black Student Union. 

Lockard continued to teach at both universities for 40 years. His former students fondly remember that he would make sure to play music before and after each of his classes. Elizabeth James remembers: “He always played music before and after his classes began, setting the scene for the lessons to be learned each day. He deeply believed in developing critical thinking skills so that you would remain curious about the world around you. He was a philosopher who sought to inspire us to think beyond the obvious and examine life in a more nuanced way, similar to the details and symbols in his art.

Lockard’s reputation for being a “difficult” teacher is also fondly remembered by students. He would not let students get away with lack of participation, and he thereby enriched their educational experiences. Former colleague Bamidele Agbasegbe-Demerson says, "you had to always raise questions because it was through raising questions that you interrogated the subject. You came to some decisions and ultimately, hopefully an understanding.” Mike Mosher recalls that he would not just let students “do their own thing,” that “his classes were dedicated to learning to represent the human figure accurately … you had to demonstrate skill in drawing a model in a full range of values with a single black or brown Conte crayon.”

In addition to his teaching in formal university settings, Jon co-founded organizations such as Our Own Thing, where he offered his knowledge to students participating in scholarship programs. He was a co-founder and acted as Associate Director of the Society for the Study of African American Culture and Aesthetics, and in 1983 was elected president of the African American arts organization National Conference of Artists (NCA). 

'Our Own Thing' Helps Students Study In Arts, from the Ann Arbor News, September 18, 1971
'Our Own Thing' Helps Students Study In Arts, from the Ann Arbor News, September 18, 1971

Lockard’s former student and working artist Earl Jackson remembers a trip Lockard led for the NCA to Dakar, Senegal, noting the profound influence it had on his artistic direction. Lockard emphasized the importance of color in his teachings, focusing on the differences in meanings associated with colors across cultures. Lockard’s work participated in a dialogue of artworks by members of the African diaspora, which led to the creation of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s-70s, a movement of art toward an “African American aesthetic” that Lockard helped develop throughout his career along with contemporaries and friends such as Bing Davis. 

In line with his mission to promote an African and African American aesthetic in his work, Jon found inspiration in words and concepts throughout history. Sankofa, for example, was one of Lockard’s most revered philosophies. As he interpreted it, “there is wisdom in learning from the past and one’s roots, to ensure a strong future moving forward.” Lockard used this term repeatedly throughout his career: as the title of his show “Sankofa”, originally aired on Barden Cable Television of Detroit from, and as the title of his biweekly journal. In 2000, the Center for Afroamerican Studies named a gallery for Lockard that launched with an inaugural exhibit titled “Looking Back but Seeing Ahead: Sankofa and Creativity.”

A Case for the Inseparability of Art & Politics

In 1983, a year after an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Ann Arbor Street Fair, Lockard spoke with Susan Nisbett of the Ann Arbor News. She wrote: “Lockard expressed a desire to talk about art, rather than politics,” followed by the statement: “In the broadest sense, however, to talk about the one with Lockard is to talk about the other.” Lockard’s artistic philosophy and choice of subject matter from the beginning was focused on Black and African American representation. He knew that his works were provocative and made white audience members uncomfortable at times, but that above all else “art has a responsibility to tell the truth.”

From the Michigan Daily, June 16, 1982
From the Michigan Daily, June 16, 1982

In his early career, Jon Lockard was known as a traveling portraitist, having attended the yearly show at the Ann Arbor Street Fair since its founding. His on-site portrait work was so popular it was known to have drawn large crowds, with art fair organizers strategically placing Lockard’s booth to draw visitors to the far reaches of the event. Though Lockard had by all accounts been a cherished member of the annual art fairs, a legal battle erupted when in 1982, the Ann Arbor Street Fair Jury rejected Lockard as a participant for the first time in 22 years. The rejection of Lockard’s application was based on charges of exhibiting “commercially printed prints” and works by other artists. Lockard did in fact exhibit the work of another artist: a student who had reproduced Lockard’s works as stained glass “faithfully transcribing” from Lockard’s original paintings. 

An ad hoc committee was quickly formed in support of Lockard after his rejection from the fair. The Committee for Salvation of the Human Experience in the Visual Arts (SHEVA) members included Bob Medellin, Leslie Kamil (then Kamil-Miller), and Bamidele Agbasegbe-Demerson. The art fair at the time noted that this was a routine experience for veteran exhibitors, one that would continue to amplify in the following years. Lockard and his committee, however, weren’t the only ones to push back. Carolyn Kilpatrick, a democrat from Detroit at the time and House majority whip, commented in support of Lockard and his cause along with the mayor of Ypsilanti and many Ann Arbor residents. Critics pointed out that in a typical fair of 300 exhibitors, it was estimated that a maximum of four artists were Black each year.

A New York-based law firm, the Center for Constitutional Rights, founded by William Kuntsler also found the case to be worthwhile, and lawyer Mike Gombiner made a case that the jury had violated the artist’s due process freedom of expression on the basis of racial discrimination. Though the case was unsuccessful for Lockard's reinstatement in the fair, it had a lasting impact, and not only on the jurying process. After the case was dismissed, the Art Fair’s lawyer James Erady responded that procedures for jurying were under review. Leslie Kamil notes that “the beauty of the case is that it created the need and the requirement for art fairs to have standards and screening criteria.” Change was introduced locally when City Councilman Larry Hunter proposed that the Art Fair Jury annually submit its findings to the City Council for review ‘to make a public matter public’, but also for the nation as a whole, raising awareness on the potential for bias and discrimination in jurying processes. 

The Later Years: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial & Continuing Legacy

Artist, Jon Lockard's Studio Door With Message About Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death, April 1968
Artist, Jon Lockard's Studio Door With Message About Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death, April 1968

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, Lockard placed a sign on 215 S. Fourth Ave studio: “Closed due to the death of a friend Dr. Martin Luther King.” Nearly twenty years later in 1996, Jon Lockard was chosen as one of five African American men to advise on the creation of a national monument honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Senior Art Advisor for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

Lockard worked alongside Dr. Ed Jackson as the Executive Architect and Taubman College Professor Emeritus of Architecture James Chaffers Jr. to select an artist to produce the statue, which would be unveiled in 2011 in Washington D.C.’s National Mall. 

Jon Onye Lockard & James Chaffers, September 7, 1998
Jon Onye Lockard & James Chaffers, September 7, 1998

Lockard worked on various aspects of the project, from planning to fundraising to construction. The group worked on determining the monuments’ final location, had a design competition and then selected the sculptor, Lei Yixin, a Chinese artist who was the best of the best of artists working in granite globally. Lockard went with members of the committee to China to see a mockup of the statue and offer comments on changes. Leslie Kamil accompanied Lockard, and recalls that he and others in the group had a tense discussion about what expression Martin Luther King Jr. should have, ultimately dissuading the artist from his original design that portrayed King as a “warrior.” Dr. Ed Jackson Jr. remembers Jon throughout the process as “my rock, my defender, my linebacker”, additionally noting that his project marked “the first time a group of African Americans have attempted to build a memorial of this scale on the national mall” and faced national scrutiny. 

"It's only a journey when you have a destination." – Jon Lockard

Portrait of Jon Lockard, date unknown
Portrait of Jon Lockard, date unknown

Jon Onye Lockard died March 24, 2015 in Ann Arbor and is buried at Washtenong Memorial Park and Mausoleum. His legacy continues with his three children, his works of art and murals, his students, and Lockard’s Visions of Destiny (DBA), now protected by the Jon Onye Lockard Foundation. His students, colleagues, and family remember him fondly, with a nod toward his lasting impact on their lives and the lives of others through his questioning nature and unending passion for teaching. Elizabeth James wrote: “I can't think of a time when he didn't ask some question that would leave you pondering the answer. He was a griot and a visionary all at once.” 

Bamidele Agbasegbe-Demerson remembers that Jon, while he was a professor and academic, was ultimately a “Ph.B,” a play on “Ph.D., the Doctor of Philosophy. But John would say that he is a Ph.B., a practicing human being.” This approach to life, “embodies in some ways the totality of all the different hats that he wore … whatever he did. He always strived to be a human being, a practicing human being, a Ph.B.” Today, Lockard’s legacy continues to influence new generations with his vast contributions to the art world and civil rights, which beg audiences to continue asking questions and seeking answers, but most of all creating a dialogue with one another.

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3800 Packard, 1971

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1908 Photo of the Ann Arbor Police Department

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