George Hunt poured out the pathos and the passion of Memphis blues on canvas and so it is altogether fitting and proper for residents in his beloved city to respond so deeply to his death last Friday (Dec. 4).
According to family members, Hunt had suffered with poor health over the past two years and died at Baptist Memorial Hospital. He was 87.
Hunt was the official artist for Memphis in May’s Beale Street Music Festival for 27 years, creating original art for the festival. A motorcade salute to him rolled down Beale Street on Tuesday (Dec. 8) afternoon.
Hunt was born in rural Louisiana, near Lake Charles. His grandmother noted that when he was a young child, she recognized that her grandson had the ability to “see things.” The guttural, indigenous blues music of Louisianans living way back in the country inundated his life and experiences growing up.
With his later childhood spent in Texas and Hot Springs, Arkansas, Hunt attended the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff on a football scholarship after high school. He studied art in undergraduate school, continuing post-graduate studies at the University of Memphis and New York University.
For 30 years, Hunt taught art education at George Washington Carver High School in Memphis before plunging into a stellar, full-time painting career.
In 1997, Hunt was commissioned to create an image reflecting the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School by nine Black students 40 years earlier. Titled “America Cares/Little Rock Nine,” it later became an image on a U.S. postage stamp issued during the 2005 celebration of diversity series, “To Form a More Perfect Nation.”
The painting hung in the White House during the administration of President Bill Clinton, a former Arkansas governor, who favored the work. First Lady Hillary Clinton sent a personal note to Hunt, expressing gratitude for White House visitors and staff having such a powerful image of hope and freedom to greet, inspire and inform them.
His distinctive style reflected the disjointed, cobbled-together portraiture of African-American life and famous local bluesmen. Hunt’s use of fabric, vivid color and pieces of jewelry depicted a body of work inspired by legendary Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.
One of Hunt’s most memorable art exhibits was a body of work created in 2003, which was declared “Year of the Blues” by Congress, and Hunt was named “official artist” for the “Year of the Blues.”
The resulting national tour was comprised of 26 large paintings that depicted the history of the blues.
Hunt’s voice was an intricate part of the 13-part, “Year of the Blues” radio series produced by the Public Broadcasting System. Later, in 2003, the Blues Foundation bestowed a “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award on Hunt, an extraordinary honor for an artist who was not a musician.