Augusta Savage, The Black Woman Artist Who A Crafted A Unliked Life

In 1937, the sculptor Augusta Savage was commissioned to create a sculpture that would appear at the 1939 New York World’s Fair in Queens, NY Savage was one of only four women, and the only Black artist, who was one for the fair Used to get commission. In his studio in Harlem, he cast “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a 16-foot sculpture, cast in plaster and inspired by a song of the same name – often called the Black National Anthem – by his friend James Weldon Johnson wrote. Who died in 1938.

The sculpture was renamed “The Harp”, performed by world fair organizers and featured works by renowned artists from around the world, including Willem de Kooning and Salvador Dali. The press reported in detail how well the piece was received by visitors, and it is speculated that it was Among the most photographed sculptures At the fair.

But when the World’s Fair ended, Savage could not afford to cast “The Harp” in bronze, or even pay for the plaster version to be shipped or stored, so his monumental works, such as at the fair Many temporary works on display were dismantled, destroyed. .

The commission’s story and the destruction of “The Harp” and its ultimate fate are a microcosm of the challenges Savage faced – and the black cast that dealt with the times and are still dealing today. Savage was an important artist who was held back not by talent but by financial limitations and socioeconomic barriers. Most of Savage’s works have been lost or destroyed, but today, a century later she reached the height of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City, her work, and her plight, still resonate.

“Imagine the power of someone watching ‘The Harp’ in monumental shape for the last 70 years,” said Neema Sandy, curator and visiting assistant professor at the Pratt Institute. “What can he change?”

Savage, Green Cove Springs in 1892, Fla. Augusta Christine Fells, born in Seville, was the seventh of 14 children. He began making sculptures of animals from clay as a child, but his father strongly opposed his interest in art. Savage once said that he “killed almost all the arts from me,” According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Savage arrived in Harlem a century ago in 1921, in the early years of the Harlem Renaissance. She was about 30; Was already twice married, widowed and divorced; And had a teenage child, Irene, whom he left in Florida under the care of his parents. She applied to Cooper Union Art School and completed a four-year program in three years. She took the surname Savage from her second husband, whom she divorced. In 1923, she married her third and last husband, Robert L. Poston. Poston died a year later.

The year she married Postone, Savage was one of 100 women to be awarded a scholarship to attend the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in Paris. But when the admissions committee found out that it had selected a black woman, Savage’s scholarship was canceled.

in A letter explaining the decisionThe chairman of Fontainebleau’s sculpture department, Ernest Peixote, expressed concern that “irreconcilable complications” would arise between Savage and students from the southern states.

Savage did not quietly accept the rejection. Irwin said, he used the black press to create the boundaries he was known to large national and international people. “He had a real determination and understanding of his talent and a refusal to act.”

In the years following the Fontainebleau episode, Savage was commissioned to create a stir for prominent African-American celebrities such as sociologist and scholar WEB Du Bois and Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey. She also created a painted plaster bust painting “Gumin” based on her nephew, which became one of her most famous pieces, praised for its expression. (It was later cast in bronze.)

“Gamin” earned him a Julius Rosenwald fellowship to travel to Paris in 1929, becoming a refuge for black artists, including the painter Palmer Hayden and the sculptor Nancy Elizabeth the Prophet. Savage studied at the Académie de la Grand Chaumiere and performed works at the Grand Palais and other prominent venues.

When she returned to Harlem in 1932, she opened Savage Studios for Arts and Crafts, where she taught leading artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, Norman Lewis and Kenneth B. Clarke. Clarke later switched to social psychology and developed with his wife Mamie, using the doll to show how segregation affected the self-perception of black children.

Dr. Cooks stated that the community-driven education Savage has given is part of the African-American tradition, as black people have historically been excluded from formal educational spaces. “But for him to open his own school is something completely different,” Dr. Cook said. “He is becoming a businessman. He is playing a leadership role for which he has no model in the context of black people in the art world, and especially black women. “

In 1934, Savage became the first African-American member of the National Women Painters and Sculptors (now the National Association of Women Artists). In 1937, he worked with the WPA Federal Art Project to establish the Harlem Community Art Center and became its first director. Eleanor Roosevelt, who attended its inauguration, was so impressed with the center that she used it as a model for other art centers around the country.

“She paved the way for careers for Black artists,” Tomby Lawson, curator of the Skomberg Center’s art and art division, The biggest catch of Savage’s work, said. “He taught them, he gave them tools, and he gave them work.”

Sandra Dumont-Jackson, director and chief executive officer of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, agrees. “She, to me, represents someone who believes that he was not compromising his studio practice or who was teaching and bringing people along,” Ms. Dumont-Jackson said. Catalyze “

Yet the years following Savage’s artistic career were marked by adversity. After taking a hiatus to work on her sculpture for the World’s Fair, Savage returned to the Harlem Community Arts Center to find that she had found a job. He briefly tried to establish a contemporary Negro art salon in Harlem in 1939, but the gallery only lasted for three months.

Historical Jill Lepore’s 2016 book “Joe Gold’s Teeth” reveals archival evidence that an eccentric author Gould Troubled Savage Constantly calling her, insulting her, chasing her for parties and telling people that she agrees to marry him. In the early 1940s, Savage abruptly left his home in Harlem for a farmhouse in Saugertis, NY, in the Catskill Mountains, where he continued to hustle and teach local children. In Harlem, the community arts center he founded was closed in 1942 when federal funds were cut during World War II.

After Gould’s death in 1954, Savage returned to Harlem only. He died in March 1962, at 70.

Jeffrey Hayes, now a curator and executive director of ThreewellShe was a graduate student at Howard University, an arts nonprofit institution in Chicago, when she came to know about the work of Augusta Savage. A professor mentioned the sculptor in passing during a section on the Harlem Renaissance.

“I remember my professor showed Augusta Savage’s slides,” Ms. Hayes said, “and then we just left.”

Hayes, however, was struck by this story of a resilient black woman whose greatest work has been lost but against an backdrop of Jim Crow laws and the Great Depression as an artist, educator, art center director and community organizer Created life

Ms. Hayes said, “I don’t think of Augusta Savage, who only makes objects, but as someone who left behind the blueprint of what it really means to be a centerpiece of humanity.” is. “

In 2018, Ms. Hayes commissioned the exhibition “Augusta Savage: Renaissance Women” at the Flemmer Museum of Jacksonville in Jacksonville, which, according to the catalog, aims to “reunite Harlem Renaissance artist Augusta Savage for art and cultural history in light.” 21st century focus on the concept of artist-worker. “

“Savage’s artistic skills were widely appreciated nationally and internationally during his lifetime,” the catalog wrote, “and another examination of his artistic heritage has been over a long period of time.”

At a time when discourse focuses on the artistic and political role of public art and monuments, the continued absence of work such as “The Harp” becomes even more acute.

After the Civil War, as cities developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, Sculptors formed close alliances with architects, Such as parks, town squares, and other public spaces were designed with the statues in mind. Unlike paintings, which are usually kept in museums, statues, and monuments, being present in public life has a symbolic symbolic value.

“Your public art should align with the values ​​of a community,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Society. “Every generation, every state should step back and say, maybe there is time for someone else”.

In assessing “Augusta Savage: Renaissance Women”, Times art critic Robert Smith noted Another Savage sculpture titled “Realize”: “It did not force itself to make almost life-sized clay versions. It is heartbreaking to think what the difference in its survival might be. “

Recently, in the context of questions on Confederate monuments, Calls have been made To recreate Savage’s “The Harp” and display it at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Savage looked at his legacy with humility, emphasizing the success of his students. In an interview in Metropolitan Magazine in 1935, he said, “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I could inspire one of these young people to develop the talent that I know If I have them, then my memorial will be in their work. “

Dr. Cook said she would “disagree” with Savage’s evaluation of her work; “I think everyone will,” he said. Dr. For Cook, it is clear that Savage saw his legacy as “someone who could set up opportunities for others who were younger than him, essentially having room to build black infrastructure, so that So that they can succeed. “

In this sense, Savage’s legacy lies as much in life as in the work he created for himself, as shown in the surviving film of Savage’s mentoring students, or in his studio making sculptures. for.

Ms. Hayes said in her work at TheVerals that she wanted to honor Savage’s mission: “to create a larger ecology that intentionally builds relationships with the community,” as Ms. Hayes put it.

Ms. Hayes did not have the support of people like Savage to guide her early in the art world. “I really like that I can pass on that knowledge to the coming generation,” she said.

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