Inside Nassau Community College's Firehouse Plaza Art Gallery, Emmett Wigglesworth's paint-stained fingers carefully guide a brush over a section of his latest project: a 3-D, 22-foot-long mural.
The nearly completed piece stands to his left -- a collection of plastic foam cutouts shaped like humans, each painted with strips of vibrant colors.
"It all starts with a scribble," said Wigglesworth, 79, of St. Albans, Queens. "If I have a particular idea in mind, I find meaning in the scribbles and work from there."
Wigglesworth replaces these "scribbles" with shades of yellow, blue, pink and brown to create paintings and murals that comment on African-American culture and history.
His intricate work has been exhibited across the world during a career spanning five decades, including at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, the National Museum of Ghana and the African American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead.
This year, it caught the attention of Firehouse Plaza's gallery committee, which invited Wigglesworth to participate in the gallery's second summer artist residency program.
In addition to displaying his work in the gallery from June until Aug. 23, Wigglesworth taught workshops to students, teachers and local residents.
During his classes, he gave each group one large sheet of paper, color pastels and a set of shapes to draw. Wigglesworth then instructed them to create collages that the gallery later displayed alongside his work.
"It was really about working together," said Lynn Rozzi, director of the gallery. "No two murals are alike. It was amazing to see what the different groups could do with the same shapes and colors."
Wigglesworth said he used the exercise to not only show the beauty people can create when working together, but also how each person's upbringing and culture can contribute to the whole of society.
Promoting cultural pride has been the foundation of his work and teaching since the 1950s. Wigglesworth, a native of Philadelphia, showed interest in art from an early age, and several of his high school classes inspired him to pursue art in college.
"I had never seen a black artist before and had no idea how to go about doing it," he said. "But I knew that if I was going to make a contribution to humanity, it had to be through something I did well."
Wigglesworth attended The Philadelphia College of Art for 18 months, but he found the formal instruction to be stifling and dropped out. He joined the Marine Corps and served in the Korean War before being honorably discharged. He returned briefly to the College of Art, but in 1958 moved to Manhattan to pursue an art career.
During his first few years in New York, Wigglesworth joined the civil rights movement, organizing demonstrations and sit-ins in the South, including in Mississippi and Alabama. Traveling throughout the country in the '60s shifted the focus of his work from global issues to African-American struggles.
Though he always brought paper for scribbling, Wigglesworth's first major pieces developed in the late 1960s when he joined the Weusi Artist Collective, a Harlem-based group that was a "vanguard of the Black Arts Movement," he said.
The collective set up a gallery and hosted outdoor shows that aimed to foster knowledge and pride in black culture.
"Unfortunately art, especially black art, doesn't get much attention," he said. "We were just trying to allow black children to see the things and the people we never did growing up."
The education of America's youth is a constant in Wigglesworth's mission. In addition to Nassau Community College, his teaching credits include The Harlem Parents Association, The Children Arts Carnival of Harlem and a CORE Freedom School in Selma, Ala.
Arts education is more than learning how to paint or write well, Wigglesworth notes. It allows children to think critically and gain confidence in their own creations. He nurtures these qualities by allowing students in his classes to paint without restrictions.
"You never stifle creativity by saying 'that's not the way to do it,' " he said. "If you do, you'll destroy it because you've told the kids there's something wrong with what they have done."
Now in the later stages of his career, Wigglesworth said he often thinks about how American society has changed and the future of the art industry. To him people appear less interested in preserving history and developing artistic creativity, both at home and in schools.
Though he believes American materialism and mainstream culture threaten individuality, Wigglesworth said he is hopeful young people will be more active in their lives and challenge the status quo. That hope is expressed in his colorful mural for Firehouse Plaza, which encourages viewers to look beyond life's surface and question the world around them.
"It's all about what you see," Wigglesworth said. "What you have to dig through to see truth."