Augusta Savage was a world-famous African-American sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance who sculpted the famous and unknown among her contemporaries and helped to inspire a future generation of African-American artists. She was also a teacher whose studio was important to the careers of a rising generation of artists who would become nationally known. She worked for equal rights for African Americans in the arts.
Born Augusta Christine Fells (Savage) in Green Cove Springs (near Jacksonville), she began making clay figures as a child, mostly small animals, but her father would beat her when he found her sculptures. This was because at that time, he believed her sculpture to be a sinful practice, based upon his interpretation of the "graven images" portion of the Bible. After the family moved to West Palm Beach, she sculpted a Virgin Mary figure, and upon seeing it, her father changed his mind, regretting his past actions. The principal of her new school recognized and encouraged her talent, and paid her one-dollar a day to teach modeling during her senior year. This began a lifelong commitment to teaching as well as to art.
In 1907, she married John Moore and they had a daughter, Irene. John died shortly after. Fells then moved back in with her parents, who raised Irene with her. Fells continued to model clay, and applied for a booth at the Palm Beach county fair where the initially apprehensive fair officials ended up awarding her a $25 prize. The sales of her art totaled 175 dollars, a significant sum at that time and place.
That success encouraged her to apply to Cooper Union (Art School) in New York City, where she was admitted in October 1921 on the encouragement of Solon Gorglum. During this time she married James Savage but they soon divorced after only a few months. She however chose to keep the name of Savage. She excelled in her art classes at Cooper, and was accelerated through foundation classes. Her talent and ability so impressed the staff and faculty at Cooper, that she was awarded funds for room and board, tuition that was then already being covered for all Cooper students.
In 1923 Savage applied for a summer art program sponsored by the French government. Despite being more than qualified, she was turned down by the international judging committee, solely because she was black (Bearden & Henderson, AHOAAA, p. 169-170). Savage was deeply upset, and questioned the committee, beginning the first of many public fights for equal rights in her life. The incident got press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, and eventually the sole supportive committee member, sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil—who at one time had shared a studio with Henry Ossawa Tanner—invited her to study with him. She later cited him as one of her teachers. After completing studies at Cooper Union, Savage worked in Manhattan steam laundries to support herself and her family. Her father had been paralyzed by a stroke, and the family's home destroyed by a hurricane. Her family moved from Florida into her small West 137th Street apartment. During this time she obtained her first commission, for a bust of W. E. B. Du Bois for the Harlem Library. Her outstanding sculpture brought more commissions, including one for a bust of Marcus Garvey.
In 1923 Savage married Robert Lincoln Poston, a protégé of Garvey. Poston died aboard a ship returning from Liberia as part of a Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League delegation in 1924. In 1926 she exhibited her work at the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia. That same year she was awarded a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. The scholarship covered only tuition, however, and she was not able to raise money for travel and living expenses. Thus she was unable to attend.
Augusta Savage, The Harp
Knowledge of Savage's talent and struggles became widespread in the African-American community and fund-raising parties were held in Harlem and Greenwich Village. African-American women's groups and teachers from Florida A&M all sent her money for studies abroad.
In 1929, with assistance as well from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Savage enrolled and attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, a leading Paris art school. In Paris, she studied with the sculptor Charles Despiau. She exhibited and won awards in two Salons and one Exposition. She toured France, Belgium, and Germany, researching sculpture in cathedrals and museums. Savage returned to the United States in 1931, energized from her studies and achievements abroad. The Great Depression had nearly stopped art sales but she pushed on, and in 1934 she became the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She helped African- American artists to enroll in the Works Progress Administration arts project.
Throughout her career, she was an active spokesperson for African-American artists in the United States. She also was one of the principal organizers of the Harlem Artists Guild. She launched the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, located in a basement on West 143rd Street in Harlem. She opened her studio to anyone who wanted to paint, draw, or sculpt. Her many young students would include the future nationally known artists Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Gwendolyn Knight. Another student was the sociologist Kenneth B. Clark, whose later research contributed to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled school segregation unconstitutional. Her school evolved into the Harlem Community Art Center; 1500 people of all ages and abilities participated in her workshops, learning from her multi-cultural staff, and showing work around NYC. Funds from the Works Progress Administration helped, but old struggles of discrimination were revived between Savage and WPA officials who objected to her having a leadership role (AHOAAA p. 174).
Savage received a commission from the 1939 New York World's Fair where she created “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, inspired by the song by James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson. The 16-foot-tall plaster sculpture was the most popular and most photographed work at the fair; small metal souvenir copies were sold, and many postcards of the piece were purchased. Savage did not have funds to have it cast in bronze, or to move and store it. Like other temporary installations, the sculpture was destroyed at the close of the fair.
Savage opened two galleries, whose shows were well attended and well reviewed, but few sales resulted and the galleries eventually closed. Deeply depressed by the financial struggle in the 1940s, Savage moved to a farm in Saugerties (near Woodstock, New York), where she stayed until 1960. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 as the Augusta Savage House and Studio. She worked on a mushroom farm, and made little or no effort to talk about or create art. Her few neighbors said that she was always making something with her hands (AHOAAA, p. 179).
Much of her work is in clay or plaster, as she could not often afford bronze. One of her most famous busts is titled “Gamin”, which is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Her style can be described as realistic, expressive, and sensitive. Though her art and influence within the art community is documented, the location of much of her work is still unknown.
Augusta Savage, Gamin
The Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, a Baltimore, Maryland public high school, is named in her honor. In 2007 the City of Green Cove Springs, Florida nominated her to be inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame. She was induced the spring of 2008. Today, at the actual location of her birth there is a Community Center named in her honor.
Author Alan Schroeder wrote a biography of Augusta Savage intended for younger readers. Lee and Low, a New York publishing company released “In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage” in September 2009 by.
Great black sculptors brought to you by Paris-based black artist Ealy Mays
REFERENCES / SOURCES / LINKS
- "National Register Information System".National Register of Historic Places.National Park Service. 2009-03-13.
- Schomburg Center
- Smithsonian Archives
- PBS: Art Focus
- About.com: Women's History
- Book Rags
- Green Cove Spring
- Florida Artist Hall of Fame