John Farrar was a country boy barely out of puberty when he won the Washington Times-Herald’s outdoor art fair in 1942, quickly becoming one of the most promising black artists of his generation. Within a few years, his work would be exhibited alongside that of Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and Loïs Mailou Jones. He would beat noted abstract artist Romare Bearden in a prestigious art competition in Atlanta. And his work would be included in a major exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century African American art in New York.
And then, just like that, he was never heard from again.
Farrar kept painting, but only when his alcoholism and schizophrenia permitted. He spent his adulthood as a ward of the state, either in prison or in insane asylums. On the rare occasions when he was free, he wandered the bars along U Street, channeling his substantial talent into drawings that he traded for drinks. When he died at St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1972 at 44, his personal belongings consisted of $1.30 and more than 60 paintings of unknown value.