Prophet William Joshua Blackmon (1921 - 2010)

Birth date: 1921 Death date: 2/8/2010  
Birth location: Albion, Michigan Death location: Detroit, Michigan  
Media: Folk & Outsider Art , Painting Web site:
Fair (file rating) - MWA artist file may include basic data, and additional newspaper articles, book references, exhibition information, and images that can be researched on site at MWA.

Biographical Brief

Milwaukee self-taught artist - naïve religious imagery. 


Prophet William Jospeh Blackmon
1921, Albion, Michigan
2010, Detriot, Michigan

Prophet William Joseph Blackmon, a street preacher and self-taught artist who created hand-lettered signs and religious paintings, is considered to be one of the best folk/outsider artists to have ever come out of Milwaukee. Born in 1921 to African- American parents who had moved north in search of  better racial and economic circumstances, Blackmon was one of twelve children who enjoyed a poor but happy upbringing on a small rural farm in Albion, Michigan. Amidst the Great Depression, Blackmon quit  attending school during the 10th grade to earn money working with his father laying railroad track, and later, by working at a large foundry in Albion, MI.

During World War II, Blackmon served in the Pacific as a member of the 585th Engineers Company, and earned several campaign ribbons and six bronze battle stars. He has given credit to his wartime experiences for the development of his deep religiosity, saying, "I learned to pray during the Second World War. When the Japanese planes came over, I'd say: "Lord, if you get me over this hill, I'll get over the next one myself."

Living in Chicago in the 1950's, Blackmon found himself operating a shoe shine stand in Chicago, near Christian Hope Missionary Church. He became a junior deacon at the church, and is said to have revealed his gifts for healing and prophesy at this time, reportedly healing parishioners by touch and predicting events such as storms.  Rivalry and jealously over his purported gifts eventually forced him out of the church around 1960, and he left Chicago to become a 'hitchhiking man of God,' traveling the upper Midwest for nearly fifteen years as a door-to-door preacher, in exchange for a meal and a place to sleep.  During this period of his life, Blackmon experienced the death of his first wife, separation from his second wife, and estrangement from his five children.

In 1974, after cutting open a melon and finding that the seeds inside spelled out M I, Blackmon decided to move to Milwaukee, where he established a series of combination storefront churches and enterprise centers throughout the inner city. These centers offered religious services, and also served as a site to recycle goods and learn job skills, such as shoe repair and tailoring. To advertise these services, Blackmon produced an assortment of hand-lettered signs. In 1982, the wife of the then-current Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum noticed the distinctive signs and purchased two of them as a gift for her husband. Several years later, in 1984, the wife of the then-current Curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum, having seen the signs purchased for the Director, gave Blackmon his first proper commission, a sign that read 'God bless our home.' He made the decision to add a few simple figurative elements, and in doing so, created his first painting.

By 1986, Blackmon had created a small collection of paintings and his first exhibit took place that year at the Wright Street Gallery in Riverwest.  His artistic merit was further recognized with purchase awards from the inner city arts council in 1986 and 1987.

Throughout the 1990's and 2000s, Blackmon's artistic status continued to grow both locally and nationally with works exhibited at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), the Haggerty Museum of Art, the UWM Art Gallery,  the American Center for Design in Chicago, Artists Space in New York,  and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore,  among several other exhibitions.  From 2000-2002, one of Blackmon's paintings was featured in a traveling exhibit of Contemporary Folk Art by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His paintings are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, the American Folk Art Museum in New York, and the Milwaukee Art Museum. His works are on permanent display at both the Center Street Library and the East Library in Milwaukee.

Blackmon viewed his paintings as 'visual sermons,' and his paintings extolled the same values he preached about- those of family, education, prayer, and discipline, while also reflecting the struggles of poor black Americans. Despite his artistic success, Blackmon refused to take any credit, instead giving all his 'praise and glory' to God, for giving him the inspiration. He earned very little from his paintings, and remained poor throughout his life. What money he did earn, he put back into inexpensive supplies and his ministry work, hoping to one day build a proper place of worship for his small congregation.

 In 2010, at age 89, Blackmon moved to Detroit and died just weeks later of natural causes, and was buried with military honors.

In 2012, Blackmon was a lifetime achievement honoree at the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards, which were hosted at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

Wisconsin Affiliations

No affiliations were found.

Wisconsin Art Organizations

No art organizations were found.

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