Larry Lebby

Larry Lebby

Larry Lebby, the South Carolina artist known for depictions of African-American life and portraits of public figures, died July 21. He was 69.

One of Lebby’s most noteworthy works came about relatively recently, when he was chosen to paint a memorial portrait of Clementa Pinckney, the late state senator and pastor of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, one of nine people murdered at the church in 2015.

The painting, which now hangs in the state Senate chamber, shows Pinckney smiling warmly as he stands in front of a stained glass window in the Mother Emanuel sanctuary.

By the time he was chosen for the Pinckney portrait, Lebby’s work was already well-known in the State House, which also houses his portraits of civil rights leader Benjamin Mays and legendary activist Modjeska Simkins. Other prominent Lebby portraits include ones of Sen. Strom Thurmond, S.C. Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney Jr., Hank Aaron, and United States District Judge Matthew J. Perry.

Fellow artist Leo Twiggs, who was on the selection committee for the Mays portrait, liked the finished product, but with one caveat. 

“I just thought that it was so small compared to the other portraits,” Twiggs recalls. “I talked with him about it. Later he got a commission to paint Modjeska Simkins, and he did a marvelous job because it was larger, and he knew her, and the way he painted her was with such warmth and compassion.”

Twiggs was especially impressed with Lebby’s attention to physical detail.

“When he painted, you could almost see the skeletal foundation under the skin,” Twiggs notes, ”because he was very concerned with anatomy and how it was depicted.”

Lebby was also known for his peculiar choice of media, which meant not only creating colors with Worcestershire sauce, tea and berry juice, but testing the limits of a common ballpoint pen. Teachers discouraged him from trying to make serious art with a dime store Bic, but he kept at it.

“I always try to experiment with different mediums,” he said in a 2016 profile published in Columbia Metropolitan Magazine. “To get different values, I would allow very little ink to seep from the point as I was drawing. It took a long time to get to the point where I could control it.”

This was also one of the first things Harriet Green, director of visual arts for the South Carolina Arts Commission, noticed about Lebby when she studied under him in the mid-1970s at Benedict College.

“I remember how impressed I was,” she says, “at his ability to use the ballpoint pen and pencil with surgical precision.”

She wasn’t alone. In 1977, at the age of 26, Lebby made a drawing of President Jimmy Carter with a four-cent pen. He presented his work that year at the White House, and met the president. The portrait would hang in the White House during the Carter administration.

“Larry was revered for his technical prowess, his versatility in a number of media — watercolor, graphite, printmaking, and acrylic — and was a consistent image maker,” Green adds.

Another student from that period was artist Tarleton Blackwell, who describes Lebby as a major influence on his own work.

“As a teacher, he did lots of demonstrations,” Blackwell recalls. “Nowadays, you don’t see that. Instructors don’t demonstrate too much. 

Lebby was born in Dixiana, South Carolina, the third of five sons. He traced his early artistic interest to childhood, when he developed a fascination with drawing in the sand. He had to wait until schools were integrated before he could receive any formal art training, starting first at Airport High School in West Columbia and then later at Allen University. He would go on to attain a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of South Carolina.

His work has been displayed in the Smithsonian Institute, the United Nations, the U.S. Senate and the Vatican. Celebrity art collectors ranging from former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young to entertainers like Eddie Murphy, the late Gregory Peck, James Earl Jones and Roberta Flack own his work. Some of his material is included in the S.C. Arts Commission State Art Collection.

In 1994, Lebby was appointed to the Arts Commission board by Governor Carroll Campbell, where he served for eight years.

Julia Brown DuBose, the commission’s grants director at the time, says Lebby always strove to make sure the funding process was fair.

“He was always very supportive,” she says, “in making sure that funding was equitably distributed throughout the community to also involve as many African-American arts organizations and artists. Not to say that was his only role, because he was African-American, but he definitely postured himself as a voice for African American artists and arts organizations around the entire state."

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