Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi and was the seventh of eight children to Sam and Estery Gilliam. The Gilliams moved to Louisville, Kentucky shortly after Sam was born. His father worked on the railroad, and his mother cared for the large family. Gilliam began painting in elementary school and received much encouragement from teachers. In 1951, Gilliam graduated from Central High School in Louisville. Gilliam served in the United States Army from 1956 to 1958.
He received his Bachelor and Masters degree of Fine Arts at the University of Louisville. In 1955, Gilliam had his first solo exhibition at the University of Louisville. He initially taught art for a year in the Louisville public schools. In 1962, he married Dorothy Butler, a Louisville native and a well-known journalist. That same year, Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C., where he has lived ever since.Sam Gilliam is an African American Color field painter associated with the Washington Color School, Abstract Expressionism and Lyrical Abstraction. He works on stretched, draped, and wrapped canvas, and adds sculptural 3D elements.
He is recognized as the first artist to introduce the idea of a painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars c.1965, a major contribution to the Color Field School.
In 1975, Gilliam veered away from the draped canvases and became influenced by jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He started producing dynamic geometric collages, which he called “Black Paintings” due to the hue. Again, in the 1980s Gilliam’s style changed dramatically to quilted paintings reminiscent of African patchwork quilts from his childhood. His most recent works are textured paintings that incorporate metal forms. Gilliam’s ability to move beyond the draped canvas, coupled with his ability to adopt new series keeps the viewers interested and engaged. This has assured his prominence in the art world as an exciting and innovative contemporary painter.
Gilliam is also one of the few successful, self-supporting African American artists who views the teaching of art as a mission. His love of teaching developed during the one year he spent in Louisville public schools. He taught for nearly a decade in the Washington public schools, and then at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and the University of Maryland, and for several years at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. In addition, Gilliam still devotes time to conducting workshops, participating in panels, and delivering lectures in this country and abroad.
Lately, he has worked with polypropylene, computer generated imaging, metallic and iridescent acrylics, hand-made paper, aluminum, steel, and plastic.
Sam Gilliam first rose to prominence
in the late 1960's with his "drape paintings," large
scale, unstretched canvasses suspended from the wall or cieling,
on which the artist had variously soaked, stained, and splattered
in luminous layers of bright color.
In 1987 he was selected by the Smithsonian Art Collectors Program to produce a print to celebrate the opening of the S. Dylan Ripley Center in the National Mall. He donated his talent to produce In Celebration, a 35-color limited-edition serigraph that highlighted his trademark use of color, and the sale of which benefitted the Smithsonian Associates, the continuing education branch of the larger Smithsonian Institution. "In Celebration, 1987 by Sam Gilliam".
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."
He lives in Washington D.C. and has a studio in the historical Shaw neighborhood.