To Orangeburg artist Leo Twiggs, being a servant leader means “you are willing to do whatever you need to do to get the job done.”

“Servant always comes first; there’s no such thing as a leader servant,” he said.

As the newest recipient of the Virginia Theological Seminary’s Dean’s Cross award, Twiggs is being recognized as an individual epitomizing the definition of being a servant leader.

Virginia Theological Seminary is a residential community of the Episcopal Church that trains clergymen of all denominations.

The prestigious award is presented to “outstanding leaders who embody their baptismal views to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”

Twiggs expresses his views through art.

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“I think about my personal experience growing up. All my art comes out of my personal experience,” he said.

Leo Twiggs Claflin

Leo Twiggs designed the windows of Claflin University’s chapel. Pictured is Twiggs holding a framed image of the windows.

Twiggs works with waxes and dyes using batik, an ancient painting technique.

During his undergraduate years at Claflin University, he was one of the first students to study art under Arthur D. Rose. Rose is credited with creating the first art program accessible to Black artists in South Carolina.

“The state was not interested in Black people painting, unless it was houses,” Twiggs said.

Twiggs later studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and earned his masters degree from New York University. He received his doctorate in art from the University of Georgia, the first African American to do so.

His list of firsts does not stop there.

Twiggs returned to Orangeburg and established South Carolina State University’s first art department.

He says creating the program from scratch allowed him to “design a different kind of approach.”

Twiggs Grace

Leo Twiggs was commissioned by Virginia Theological Seminary to do a painting for its 200th anniversary. “Grace” is a companion piece to “The Death of George Floyd.”

“I didn’t want to train art teachers, I wanted to train artist-teachers.”

He describes an artist-teacher as a person who works as an artist while simultaneously working as a teacher.

“When you’re an artist, you experience what I call the agony of something gone wrong and the ecstasy of something gone right,” Twiggs said.

He says being honored for his body of work is “most rewarding.”

Twiggs was put on the Virginia Theological Seminary’s radar in 2020 because of his painting titled, “The Death of George Floyd.” After a buyer gifted the painting to the seminary, Twiggs was asked to host a Zoom meeting discussing his ideas behind the painting.

“I told them that I know it’s disturbing, but the event was that way and I wanted people to feel it.”

Later, Twiggs was commissioned by VTS to create a painting for its 200th anniversary. He made it a companion piece to “The Death of George Floyd” painting. Together, the paintings are named “Sin and Grace.”

Before painting “Grace,” Twiggs researched the seminary so that the piece would be personalized. While he was researching, VTS President Ian Markham told him a story that reminded him of Sarah, his great-grandmother.

“He told me about another little girl, about Sarah’s age, who was hired out to the seminary. Slave owners could hire their servants out to other people,” Twiggs said.

According to Twiggs, Sarah’s mother died in childbirth and her father was sold to another plantation. The man Sarah was owned by would bring her to church services at St. Stephen Episcopal Church in St. Stephen, where she tended to his children in a balcony.

In the piece “Grace,” Twiggs painted St. Stephen Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Episcopal churches, being built by slaves. He illustrated what he imagined the unnamed seminary servant would look like. He also included a picture of the current and first Black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Michael Curry. He completed the entire painting in six weeks.

The story of Sarah is a major part of Twiggs’ life. He created a painting named “Sarah Remembered,” which is on display at the Gibbes Museum in Charleston. In 2011 he got a chance to see the St. Stephen Episcopal Church balcony his great-grandmother once occupied.

Twiggs says “to this day” he still hasn’t been back in the church, but not by choice.When attempting to schedule a walk-through of the church for a documentary filmed by ETV, he was ultimately denied.

“I just suspect that the connection to slavery was an inconvenient truth that they didn’t want to face. The amazing thing is a truth, whether it’s inconvenient or no, is still the truth,” he said.

Twiggs will accept his award on Sunday, July 16, at the Grace Cathedral in Charleston.

He says he is “dedicating this honor to Sarah.”

“This whole experience was a great experience coming at this time in my life,” Twiggs said.

Tyuanna Williams, a Claflin University senior and editor of The Panther, Claflin’s student newspaper, is a Lee Enterprises summer intern with The T&D.

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