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James G. Pappas

James G. Pappas

(b. 1937)
Born: Syracuse, N.Y., U.S.

James Pappas is a Living Legacy Artist at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.



James G. Pappas is a nationally and internationally recognized visual artist and educator based in Buffalo, N.Y. Born in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1937, he credits his mother as inspiring him to pursue art. An aunt and uncle in Cleveland, both musicians, led him to a lifelong love of jazz (or “black classical music,” to use the term he prefers), a genre which has influenced his paintings and drawings for decades. Pappas first studied art in high school in Rochester, N.Y., and then won scholarships to the Memorial Art Gallery and RIT from 1954-56.

Pappas first studied at Madison High School, Rochester, NY and then attended St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., on an athletic scholarship. Although it was a short-lived association, it had two significant effects on his subsequent career: First, he studied with James Herring, an artist, author, and visiting professor from Howard University; and second, he faced the segregation of the South, an experience which caused him to question the socio-political realities of American life.

In 1959 he moved to Buffalo to enter the University of Buffalo. While continuing his studies he worked as an attendant at various local hospitals. He earned a BFA in 1967 and then spent some time as a parole officer with the State Department of Corrections before receiving his MFA from the same university in 1974, mentored by professors Sheldon Berlyn and Harvey Breverman. During the same period he co-founded the Langston Hughes Center for the Visual and Performing Arts with fellow artists Allie Anderson, Clarence Scott, and Wilhelmina Godfrey in Buffalo's inner city.

Pappas went on to teach at the University of Buffalo in the departments of Art and Black Studies,  becoming chair of the latter in 1977 (later known as African-American Studies and then as Transnational Studies), which  he remained for thirteen years. He is an associate professor at the university and teaches courses in Black film and Black aesthetics.

Pappas has had over 50 exhibitions in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Of his work, critic and professor Jack Quinan writes:

“Pappas feels an affinity with such Abstract Expressionist painters as Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Cy Twombly, and Sam Francis but Jazz provides the principal inspiration and, to a certain extent, the vehicle for Pappas's work. He has internalized the fundamental tenets of Jazz — the rhythmic understructure that supports solo and ensemble improvisational elaborations and dissemblings of basic tunes and chord patterns— and from individual artists such as John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Charlie Parker he has absorbed specific innovational approaches to the manipulation of space and time and to notions of spirituality and joy that belong comfortably to any serious artform.” [1]

In an artist’s statement, Pappas himself has written:

“The source of my work comes from the discovery of everyday matter in our universe. Drips of running water on a car window when the interior heat meets the external cold to form a pattern on the glass, the sun shining on a piece of metal reflecting a broken edge so brilliant that it likens to a form in itself; a rusted steel shape from a damaged automobile as a result of the constant corrosive action of nature’s elements; the erosion of deeply etched earth forms from years of weathering action; of a billboard shredded of its layered descriptions forming shapes with abrupt endings and sharply defined beginnings.” [2]

Pappas has received many awards for his work and community service. In 2013, he was designated a “Living Legacy” by the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

James Pappas is married to Dorothy Pappas retired Director of Social Work, Buffalo Psychiatric Center. They have one son, James Pappas, who resides in South Carolina.

For more information on the work of James Pappas, visit .

[1] Jack Quinan, “‘at the behest of something deep within,’” catalog essay for New Work/Further Explorations/Inner Space Continuum: The Next Generation—Spacescapes,  (Accessed 9/25/2014)

[2] James G. Pappas, “Statement,” New Work/Further Explorations/Inner Space Continuum: The Next Generation—Spacescapes,  (Accessed 9/25/2014)