John Riddle Jr., 68; Artist and Curator


John Thomas Riddle Jr., a sculptor, painter and printmaker known for artworks that addressed the struggles of black Americans through history, has died. He was 68.

The Los Angeles resident suffered a heart attack while visiting family in Atlanta last Thanksgiving. He died Sunday of complications of the heart attack at an Atlanta hospital.

Riddle, who also was a curator at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park, was a figurative artist early in his career but changed his ideas about “what the purpose of art should be” after the Watts riots in 1965.


He began to concentrate on themes that explored the harsh realities of life in South-Central Los Angeles, creating pieces from welded steel and debris left by the riots.

One such piece, titled “The Ghetto Merchant,” was made out of a cash register he rescued from a burned-out Watts store. It was featured in an exhibit called “19 Sixties, A Cultural Awakening Re-Evaluated, 1965-1975” at the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles in 1989.

Later works often contained references to famous African Americans, from Sojourner Truth to Dizzy Gillespie, and drew on African and American folk myths.

“He saw art as a way of educating African Americans about their history and how they got here,” said Drew Talley, collection manager at the California African American Museum. “He especially wanted to educate the youths so that they wouldn’t forget.”

Riddle’s public commissions include a bronze statue on the grounds of the Georgia Capitol called “Expelled Because of Color.” Other works are in the collections of the Oakland Museum, the California African American Museum, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Harriet Tubman Museum in Macon, Ga. His work also has been collected by celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Cicely Tyson and frequently appeared on the NBC television drama “In the Heat of the Night.”

Riddle taught art at Los Angeles High School and Beverly Hills High School in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1974 he moved to Atlanta, where he taught at Spelman College, directed the city’s Neighborhood Art Center and worked for the Bureau of Cultural Affairs.


He joined the California African American Museum in 1999 as curator of visual arts. He had been in the midst of organizing several shows, including one on the work of South African photographer Peter Magubene, when he was incapacitated by the heart attack in November.

Riddle was born and raised in Los Angeles. His father, John Riddle Sr., was a former USC fullback who was believed to be the first black to play in a Rose Bowl game, in 1923. His mother, the former Helen Louise Wheeler, was believed to be the first black woman to graduate from USC’s law school.

Riddle joined the Air Force in 1953 and served four years. He attended night school on the GI Bill for nine years, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in art at Cal State L.A.

He is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Carmen Willa Garrott Riddle; daughters Shawn Henderson of West Palm Beach, Fla., Deborah Riddle of Los Angeles, Pamela Kilpatrick of Doraville, Ga., and Spring Foster of Snellville, Ga.; sons Anthony, of New York, and Diallo, of Los Angeles; sisters Joanne Jefferson and Judy Kealing, both of Los Angeles; a brother, Paul, of Los Angeles; and 12 grandchildren.

Donations in his memory may be sent to the Los Angeles High School Arts Scholarship Fund, c/o Mrs. Atkins, 4650 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90019.

A celebration of his life will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. April 7 at the Watts Towers Art Center in Los Angeles.