When you hear the name Augusta Savage, what comes to mind?
Sculptor? Teacher? Equal rights activist?
Or perhaps this is the first you’ve heard of her. In today’s article, there’s something for everyone to learn as we explore the life and works of this extraordinary Harlem Renaissance sculptor.
Who was Augusta Savage?
What’s important to know about her story, is that she was a black female artist growing up in the early 1900s. Getting access to education and artistic communities was an enormous challenge. But she never gave up.
Born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, in 1892, she was the daughter of a humble Methodist minister. Hints of her inner artist shone through in her childhood sculptures, which were made of the natural clay found in the local area. Sadly, her father strongly opposed and punished her for her ‘sinful’ art.
But by 1915, the principal at her new school encouraged her to persevere with her creative gifts and allowed her to teach a clay modelling class.
As she nurtured this career, it became clear that she would need to leave Florida to establish herself, and moved to New York to study art at the free Cooper Union school in 1921. Two years later, she applied for an art programme at Fountainebleau School of Fine Arts in France and was initially accepted. But things weren’t that simple. When the American selection committee learned she was black, they withdrew the offer. This was a pivotal moment for her.
Deeply upset, she challenged the committee, and caught the attention of the local and international press in her fight for equality. Although Fountainebleau’s decision was never reversed, but this would turn out to be her first of many fights for equal rights.
She would later return to Paris to study art at the leading Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, thanks to financial support from African-American communities in New York and Florida, and the Julius Rosenwald Fund.
She is considered to be one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance, a distinguished African American artistic and literary movement in the 1920s-30s. Equal rights and sculptures of African American figures were important focuses in her life’s work. Her style was described as realistic, expressive and sensitive.
Her commissions included the Board of Design at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and The Harlem Library, and her work took her around the globe to not only France, but Italy, Germany and Belgium too.
Hailed as her most famous artwork, ‘The Harp’, drew quite the crowd (5 million people to be exact!) at the 1939 World’s Fair. The 16 foot tall sculpture depicts a choir of black children singing, which was a nod to James Weldon Johnson’s 1900 poem, ‘Negro national anthem’. This was a big deal - one of the most popular artworks of the fair, created by the only black female artist. Where is it now you ask? It was in fact carelessly destroyed by bulldozers in the fair’s clean up, making it even more infamous to this day.
Another acclaimed sculpture was ‘Gamin’, a life-sized, hand-painted sculpted bust of her nephew. Although ‘Gamin’ translates to ‘street urchin’ in French, many critics see the sculpture’s warm characterisation as an affectionate nod to the close bond they shared.
Gaining a reputation as an equal rights activist, it was natural that she would be commissioned to sculpt a bust of W.E.B Du Bois, a prominent African American rights activist and friend who had written letters to Fountainebleau in fight for her admission. This work received great critical acclaim, helping to earn her further commissions.
Savage made history as the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. In the midst of The Great Depression, she also launched the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem which was open to all who wanted to sculpt, paint or draw. Overall she led 1500 people of all ages and abilities in her workshops, and advocated their work across New York City. She grew her reputation as a teacher and mentor, teaching Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis who would later become nationally known artists.
She later left Harlem for small-town Saugerties, New York, in the early 1940s. Here, she opened a studio and continued to teach art and inspire others. She died of cancer in 1962, leaving behind a legacy of art, steadfast determination and a commitment to inspiring others.
Her own words capture this wonderfully – “If I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work. No one could ask for more than that.”
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Copy By Rosalind Carr