On February 22 Congressman John Lewis presented his graphic novel trilogy, MARCH, during Migrations & Marches, a SAM event taking place at Benaroya Hall in order to accommodate a larger audience. The event was presented as an educational opportunity for regional youth and a majority of the seats were reserved for students and their families. As a result, public seating was limited and the event sold out almost immediately. To allow more people to take part in this exciting program, we stayed open late to host a free live stream of the talk in Plestcheeff Auditorium. We also kept the Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series exhibition open and free until 9 pm. If you missed it, not to worry! You can tune in from the comfort of your home anytime, right here!
Created with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell, MARCH, recently the winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, recounts the story of the civil rights movement through the eyes of one of its most well-known figures and shares important lessons about nonviolent activism and empowerment. Congressman John Lewis is an American icon whose commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to a seat in Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from being beaten by state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.
When Jacob Lawrence was just a teenager in Harlem beginning to explore visual art as a way of commenting on the world around him, a local art teacher walked him straight into the local offices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to apply for an art project. The boy was too young, they were told, but he would be welcome to re-apply when he met the age requirement. Lawrence himself all but forgot about that invitation. His teacher, though, made sure he followed through, and one imagines the two were almost equally excited when Lawrence secured a project—his first paying art job, painting in the easel division of the Federal Arts Project.
The teacher was Augusta Savage, a well-known sculptor who had studied in Europe and in New York City, with Hermon MacNeil of the National Sculpture Society, among others. Her name carried a large amount of respect in the art community of Harlem, because she had talent and because she had settled back among her people after gaining education and exposure. She achieved a “professional” status that made her the admiration of students and local artists. There were moments in Savage’s career when her skill and grit brought financial and critical success: She earned commissions for portraits of race activists W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, and also for a monumental piece displayed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Partly by her choice, and partly for the difficulty of her time, which was marked by economic depression and racial discrimination, Augusta Savage’s legacy would be her students. Through her Harlem Art Workshop, affiliated with the State University of New York, Savage directed one of the largest free art instruction programs in New York City. Her efforts earned her an appointment as director of the Harlem Community Art Center, supported by the WPA. Through these programs, Savage’s Harlem students were offered a rare technical training and art education.
Savage once said “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting”—and we might debate her on this point—“but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.” We can safely say she accomplished what she set out to do: Jacob Lawrence, for one, listed her first among the people who encouraged him as a young artist. We might also like to thank Augusta for bringing together, through her studio, Jacob and the woman who would become his wife and muse, Gwendolyn Knight. It might have been Gwen’s sense of self-assuredness that inspired Augusta to create the memorable portrait we are looking at today.
SAM’s painted plaster portrait of Gwendolyn Knight perfectly illustrates Augusta Savage’s devotion to Gwen and all of her students. Masterfully made, it captures the nuances of Gwen’s facial features and exudes the grace and dignity for which the subject was known. Savage’s training in classical realism shines through in the portrait. It’s moving to consider that Savage had shown her work in such a hallowed space as the Grand Palais in Paris, but she debuted this portrait of Gwendolyn Knight in an exhibition of student work, held at the Harlem Y.W.C.A. in February, 1935. Not only that, but it was cast in fragile plaster and then painted; with few exceptions, Savage never had the funds to cast her works in lasting, costly bronze.
The students’ art at the 1935 Y.W.C.A. show, like Savage’s, drew on the culture and experiences of African Americans. It was a celebration of their solidarity. Augusta Savage’s lasting achievement was to create a place where aspiring artists could learn the skills of their craft while proudly exploring who they were, where they could be built up and encouraged, and made to believe in their value. Hers is a legacy worth considering as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this weekend.
—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
Images:Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-1935, Augusta Savage (born Green Cove Springs, Florida, 1892; died New York City, 1962), painted plaster, 18 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 9 in. Gift of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, 2006.86, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Gwendolyn Knight detail, Photo: Natali Wiseman. “Negro Students Hold Their Own Art Exhibition,” New York Herald Tribune, February 15, 1935, Reproduced from the Collections of the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
People in Seattle make the most of the all-too-short summers and so does SAM! We’ve got a diverse array of art exhibitions, events and experiences at all three of our sites this summer. Whether you’re interested in Bollywood, baseball, yoga or landscape painting, we’ve got you covered.
I had the pleasure of attending the opening for the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs Seattle as Collector exhibition here at SAM last night. The exhibition is part of the celebration of the Office’s 40th Anniversary, and the show includes over 110 pieces from the city’s 2,800 piece collection. The city’s collection, garnered through the 1% for art program, is really pretty extraordinary. I had been looking forward to seeing the installation, but when I actually walked through it, I was really struck by the artists included. We’re talking Chuck Close, Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, Alden Mason…big names. And there were a bunch of artists that I recognized because of exhibitions and projects I’ve worked on at SAM over the last few years.Read More