World-Famous African-American Sculptor - Augusta Fells Savage (1892-1962)
Augusta Savage was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, February 29, 1892. She knew at an early age that she wanted to become a sculptor, but unfortunately, Savage's father, a Methodist minister, disapproved of his daughter's love for art because he believed her creations were pagan. As a result of her father’s disapproval, Augusta experienced periods in her life when she was unable to practice her sculpting.
In 1915, the family left Green Cove Springs and moved to West Palm Beach. It was in West Palm Beach, at the age of 23, that Augusta realized that her future was in sculpting. Savage was inspired to become a professional artist when she was given an award for a group of her sculptures at a 1919 county fair.
Soon after her success, Augusta Savage moved to Jacksonville, Florida in search of work as a sculptor. Like so many Blacks that were living in the South at this time, Savage's efforts to establish herself proved unsuccessful.
In 1921, Augusta Savage moved to New York, believing that the North would provide her with the artistic opportunity she desired; a belief shared by many Blacks during the Migration Era. When Savage reached Harlem, it wasn’t long before she established herself not only as an artist, but also as a teacher.
Savage had her first formal art training in New York City at Cooper Union, the school recommended to her by Solon Gorglum. While studying at Cooper Union, Savage supported herself by doing odd jobs, which included clerking and working in laundries.
Augusta was turned down for a summer art program by the French government in 1923 because of her color. She brought this issue to the public's attention and caused quite an uproar. She never received the scholarship, but she received an offer to study with the sculptor Herman MacNeil. This incident brought attention to the discrimination African American artists faced in this country. Savage was seen as a troublemaker.
In 1926 Savage exhibited her work at the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia. That same year, she was awarded a scholarship to study in Rome. Savage was unable to accept the award because she could not raise the money needed to live there. Savage did get a chance to study in Europe at a later time.
Most of Savage's sculptures reflect an aspect of African American culture. The Harp was a sculpture influenced by Negro spirituals and hymns - most notably James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
Savage was unique in that most of her sculptures focused on Black physiognomy - The art of judging human character from facial features. This is readily seen in a sculpture of her nephew entitled Gamin. It was this sculpture that won Augusta Savage the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1929 and the opportunity to study in Paris for a year.
When Savage returned home from Europe, she was ready to share her art with the Harlem community, and exhibited her work at several important galleries. In addition to her own work, Savage taught art classes in Harlem. During the Depression, she helped African American artists to enroll in the Works Progress Administration arts project.
Throughout her career, Savage 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.
In 1932, Augusta established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts at 163 West 143rd Street. Savage used this studio as a way to provide adults with art education. In 1937, she became the first director of the Harlem Community Arts Center, an institution funded by the Works Progress Administration. The Arts Center was a place where African Americans could learn about their culture through the study of fine arts.
One of the greatest highlights of Savage's life was her involvement with the 306 Group – named because of the location of Charles Alston's studio at 306 West 141st Street. This group was made up of a variety of WPA artists who worked out of the studio on 141st Street. Some of the other "306" members included Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Morgan and Marvin Smith.
After 1945, Augusta Savage reduced the amount of sculpting she had been doing and fell into seclusion. Though no longer in the spotlight, she continued to teach sculpting and other art to both children and adults throughout New York.
Augusta Savage was a dedicated teacher who put her own work aside in order to encourage gifted children. She was appointed director of the Harlem Community Art Center in 1937, and helped to organize the Harlem Arts Guild. In 1939, she was commissioned for the New York World's Fair to produce a sculpture.
She created one of her major works, "The Harp," based on James and J. Rosamond Johnson's song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Here it is pictured under construction in her studio.
The work was exhibited adjacent to the Contemporary Arts Building. It was, unfortunately, destroyed when the fair was over.
Shortly afterward, Augusta Savage left Harlem and maintained a studio in Saugerties, New York, where she continued to work and teach.
Of her work with children, Savage said, "If I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work."
NOTE: If you missed my other contributions for Black History Month, go HERE to read about Gordon Parks and HERE to read about Romare Bearden.