John Solomon Sandridge is an American painter, sculptor, illustrator, author, educator, inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He is notably recognized as the first and only black artist licensed during the early 1990s by The Coca-Cola Company to incorporate African-American themes in their artwork, and being selected as a commissioned sculptor by the Olympic Soccer Committee during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
Sandridge was born and raised in Gadsden, Alabama, where he lived with his parents and six siblings in a three-room house. He graduated from Carver High School and attended Gadsden State Community College.
Although his family was poor, what they lacked in resources Sandridge made up for it with his creative and imaginative spirit. As early as four years old, Sandridge began creating art, his first a stick person figure drawn in the family Bible. He would later use whatever scraps of paper or materials his mother would give him, along with number two pencils, to imagine and draw. Inventive for his age, he once took an old bed sheet and fashioned it into a canvas to draw a painting that he still has today.
As a teenager, his passion and desire for art grew, especially when he was paid $15 for three sketched cartoons he submitted to The Alabama Sunday Weekly. Convinced that he could make a living as an artist, he took his first job as a painter in the commercial display industry.
Even though Sandridge had no formal training or art education, his intuitively unique style and hand painted talent of billboards caught the attention of The Coca-Cola Company in the early 1970s. Working for an outdoor sign company, Sandridge painted a realistically, eye-catching image of Niagara Falls featuring the iconic Coca-Cola bottle and logo design on a 14 ft x 48 ft billboard. So popular was the sight that the billboard won an award, prompting representatives from The Coca-Cola Company to drive from Atlanta, Georgia, to Gadsden, Alabama, to preview Sandridge’s artwork. Feeling proud of the attention his craftsmanship had attracted, Sandridge recognized that the weight of the adverse racial overtones of the time would not allow him the recognition he deserved. He was not even given a formal introduction to the men who were captivated by his work. But not one to sit idly by and accept racism or tolerate blatant disrespect towards his work ethic and creative abilities, he soon left that company.
With a wife and six children to support, he formed his own sign company, Sandridge Signs, while also working part-time at Sears, Roebuck & Co. Recognizing that his sign company was in competition with more established sign companies and needing to set himself apart, Sandridge saw a golden opportunity on a brick wall at a busy intersection that set aside a foreign car parts store. One day Sandridge approached the owner about an idea for a mural. Interested, the owner invited him to return with sketches. Sandridge returned and the end result was a realistically painted three-dimensional image of a Volkswagen crashed into the wall, creating an illusion of half of the car resting inside the store and the other half sticking out. It became an instant success and was deemed “the talk of the town,” helping Sandridge’s sign business to finally take off.
He was licensed by Coca-Cola International from 1990 to 1996 allowing him to use their images and bottle designs in his artwork, making him the first Black American licensed by the company to create paintings. He would go on to design paintings using Black American themes that would become Coca-Cola art collectibles in the form of serving trays, note cards, prints and other memorabilia. His first original Coca-Cola painting sold for $30,000, which at that time was the highest he had earned for a single painting. The value of his later works reached up to $1.5 million.
Sandridge continued to maintain a relationship with The Coca-Cola Company in which he was commissioned in 1997 to paint a portrait of Wendy’s founder, Dave Thomas, and served as a feature artist for The Coca-Cola Company’s Las Vegas gift store opening. After working with the global soft drink manufacturer, Sandridge became an art educator for the Gadsden, Alabama City School system, and was instrumental in helping to develop The Gadsden City Arts Program.
Prior to that, however, as metro Atlanta prepared for the 1996 Centennial Summer Olympic Games, Sandridge was commissioned by the Olympic Soccer Committee to create limited edition prints and a limited edition bronze sculpture. Sandridge has also illustrated numerous books, including The Bridal Wreath Bush and The Little Known Black History Facts, featured on The Tom Joyner Morning Show and through a marketing venture in 2000 with The McDonald’s Corporation, The Coca-Cola Company and celebrity radio personality Tom Joyner.