Of the artists in America, sculptors are among the least recognized and celebrated, and that anonymity increases when the artist is a Black woman such as Augusta Savage. Savage, born Feb. 29, 1892, in Green Cove Springs, Fla., gained perhaps her greatest fame during the Harlem Renaissance, though even then, she had to take a backseat to the writers, musicians, actors, dancers and a few painters.
Like so many illustrious New Yorkers, Savage migrated to the city in the 1920s from the South, and that she was able to pursue her passion as a sculptor is rather miraculous, given her Methodist minister father’s determination to stifle this early obsession. Savage grew up in a community with an abundance of clay, and her busy, gifted hands quickly took full advantage of it, shaping a virtual menagerie of animals and other tiny figurines. Each time she created one of the pieces, she was met with the full wrath of her father’s protestations. He “almost whipped all the art out of me,” Savage told a reporter.
But her father would have had to do a lot of whipping to stop Savage from her natural proclivity—an activity that was to some degree minimized when her family moved to West Palm Beach, where the clay was not as plentiful.
Eventually, her determination to find some clay paid off after she encountered a local potter. From this fortunate encounter, she had the clay she needed and quickly resumed making the figures that occupied so much of her time in Green Cove Springs. When told of a competition at a nearby county fair, she entered it and walked away with a prize. It also provided her an opportunity to meet the fair’s organizer, George Graham Currie, who took her under his arm and supported her desire to become an artist.
With his encouragement and a renewed confidence, she set out to showcase her work in a larger artistic environment in Jacksonville, but the community there was either not sympathetic to her work or not large enough to satisfy her needs. New York City was her next stop.
She arrived in the city just as the Harlem Renaissance was gathering steam. Even so, it wasn’t an easy scene to conquer unless you had the proper introductions or connections. To refine her untutored talent, she enrolled at Cooper Union, which, with its free tuition, was perfect for someone without much money or employment. Her talent won out, and soon she was awarded a scholarship to help pay the rent and buy the supplies she needed.
In 1923, while still a student at Cooper Union, she applied for a summer program to study in France, according to her official website, but was turned down. She believed this happened because she was Black. Undaunted, Savage unleashed a tidal wave of letters charging the program selection committee with racism and discrimination. Suddenly, her name was all over the place, but it did little to change the minds of the committee.
The rejection only fueled her artistic output and at the same time sent it off in a related direction as a portrait sculptor. With the growing popularity of the Harlem Renaissance and the arrival of countless notables, she had a number of luminaries to choose from if they had the time and interest to pose for her. A few of them did, and even when they didn’t, there were enough pictures of Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois and others that would serve just as well.
When at first she didn’t succeed in her quest to study abroad, Savage was by no means dismayed and, finally, in 1929, she received a prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, and she was off to Paris. The fellowship was mainly the result of her sculpture “The Gamin,” which depicted a street urchin, which her nephew posed for.
Paris, as it was for many other African-American artists, including Josephine Baker and the jazz musician Sidney Bechet, was open and welcoming to Savage, and she prospered through her exhibits. A second fellowship and a grant empowered her even more, allowing her to stay a little longer and travel widely in Europe.
In 1932, she returned to the states, and it wasn’t the most propitious time, with the country stuck in the middle of the Great Depression. To survive, she had few alternatives but to teach, which she did after establishing her own studio and seeking her own students, including Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis, both of whom would acquire great followings and honors.
A windfall for many artists of the day, particularly writers and people in the theater, was the WPA (Works Program Administration). It was euphemistically known as the “Working People of America,” and was set up to assist the nation’s struggling artists. Savage was among the first to join and was soon among the founding members of the Harlem Artists’ Guild.
Having earned wide respect for her work, Savage was commissioned to create a sculpture for the highly publicized 1939 New York World’s Fair. Drawing on the inspiration of fellow Floridians J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” she created “The Harp,” which was one of her most impressive works. It depicted African-American faces in a row atop the harp strings as though they are singing; the instrument’s sounding board is shaped to resemble a hand and arm. At the front of the piece, a young man is seen kneeling, with a piece of sheet music in his hand.
Sadly, this magnificent, 16-foot-tall work of art, made of plaster, was destroyed at the end of the fair. Fortunately, there were smaller steel versions and postcards capturing its beauty available for purchase. Savage, as with many of her expressive, realistic pieces, never had the money to cast them in stone or bronze.
With the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression sealed in the history books, Savage vacated the city and took up residence in the Catskill Mountains. She resumed teaching with only a modest amount of time set aside for her art. The teaching didn’t interfere too much with her penchant to sculpt, however, and “The Pugilist” is among several pieces that indicated she still possessed the vision and energy to create valuable art.
Savage was never as successful in her love life as she was with her art. Soon after marrying John T. Moore in 1907, he died. A few years later, she married James Savage, whose name she took and kept, and after they divorced, he died. Her third and final marriage was to a notable Garveyite, Robert Poston, but he too died not long after their wedding in 1923. She had one daughter, Irene, with whom she lived with in New York after she became ill.
On March 26, 1962, the great artist died of cancer in New York City.
Many of her works were made of perishable materials and there are a few available, none more fascinating than “The Gamin,” the bust of which is on display at the Smithsonian Art Museum, with a larger version at the Cleveland Art Museum.
Her legacy also can be found in Baltimore, where a public school is named in her honor. In 2008, she was inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame. At the place of her birth in Green Cove Springs, her name festoons the front of a community center.
- Find out more: There is a splendid biography of Savage for young readers by Alan Schroeder. Fittingly, it’s titled “In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage” (Lee and Low, 2009). Of course, there is also a lot of information about her online.
- Discussion: What other African-American sculptors do you know, and why are they so often neglected by the media? It might be useful to talk about the financial and physical challenges all sculptors face. Why did Savage decide to return to the states after such a seemingly fruitful stay in France?
- Place in context: It was during the Harlem Renaissance that Savage achieved her greatest acclaim. Consider to what extent she found comfort among the other artists of the day.
This Week in Black History
- Dec. 9, 1971: Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, the first African-American to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, died. He was 67. Bunche was also the undersecretary at the United Nations from 1955 to 1971.
- Dec. 10, 1964: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the youngest recipient of the prestigious award.
- Dec. 11, 1989: The State Appeals Court of New York reversed the verdicts on the three white youth convicted in the murder of Michael Griffith, 23, whom they chased onto the Belt Freeway near Howard Beach. The ruling was reversed, the court said, because the freeway was just improperly instructed.