Although Gregory Ridley was widely known for his metalwork in later life, he was also an accomplished sculptor and painter. Ridley, born in 1925 in Smyrna, Tennessee, was barely a generation removed from the Harlem Renaissance and its flowering of the visual arts. In the late 1940s, after serving in the United States Navy during World War II, Ridley studied with Aaron Douglas, the highly acclaimed Harlem Renaissance painter and muralist, who came to Nashville in 1930 to paint a mural program for the Erastus Milo Cravath Library at Fisk University. Douglas later returned to chair the Department of Art.
While Ridley's metal reliefs show figures in profile and a rhythmic narrative inspired by the style of Aaron Douglas's painted murals, his carved stone sculptures are sleek and elegant and his oil paintings energized and expressive. They owe much more to his participation in the forefront of American modern art than in the rear guard of the Harlem Renaissance.
Ridley went on to earn a bachelor's degree in art from Tennessee State University in 1951, followed by a master's degree from the University of Louisville in 1955. His last appointment was as a professor of art at Fisk University, after having held teaching positions at Tennessee State University, as well as at colleges in Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, New York, and Georgia. Throughout his teaching career, he maintained an active studio practice.
In Gregory Ridley's work can be seen both the trials and triumphs of contemporary African-American experience. As art historian Cedric Dover so aptly stated "The ultimate test of any work of art is its value to the society in which it is produced." Ridley passed that test on all fronts, inspiring generations of students, garnering national recognition, and prompting strong patronage at home and afar.
The 80 copper panels he created for the Grand Reading Room of the Nashville Public Library were his crowning achievement. In them, Ridley was able to demonstrate his love for and wide knowledge of history, both local and national. The Library mounted a retrospective exhibition entitled "Gregory Ridley: From the Hands of a Master" from June through September 2003.
Reavis L. Mitchell, Jr., Professor, Fisk University Department of History:
Gregory Ridley knew that this would be the research project of his later life. He took a social scientist's approach. He was intent on bringing in all the groups that were here, so he made every figure identifiable, gave every face character, and made the individuals in the background stand out prominently. He wanted to use his art to tell stories in the most inclusive way possible.
Carlton Wilkinson, Artist and Owner, In the Gallery, Nashville, TN:
Greg Ridley epitomizes the ideal artist: dedicated, tenacious, generous, and absolutely eccentric. He was quite loquacious, always entertaining and upbeat, and I cherished his playful demeanor and his caring touch as we conversed. He was faithful to his art, his beliefs, his family, and his friends. Ridley's art career is swathed in timeless, masterful accomplishment, but he will be truly missed by all who had the good fortune to know the man.
Linda T. Wynn, Historian, Tennessee Historical Commission and Professor, Fisk University Department of History:
Artist Gregory Ridley was not only racially inclusive in the Nashville Public Library's repoussé panels but he was also gender inclusive. When the record indicated, he not only included women in his work but he placed them both alongside of their male counterparts and in some instances in the forefront of historical events that affected them directly.