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Art HERstory: Augusta Fells Savage

Hey, Ladies! It’s Tuesday…Time for another Art HERstory lesson!

Before I get started, I want to thank everyone who takes the time to read these through. I know they can get kind of long. I want to commend you for your interest in these lady artists, many who’ve been left out of art history books. These ladies paved the way for us (artists or not) to succeed in male-dominated professions.

This next lady is no different.

Today’s piece is on sculptor Augusta Fells Savage (1892-1962)—a woman who went through many joys and challenges throughout her life. Most of her works were produced in plaster because she could rarely afford to have them cast in bronze. Because of the fragility of plaster not many of her sculptures exist today.

This post is a lengthy one, with little images to support the text, but I wanted to share Miss Savage’s story because she spent a lifetime facing one adversity after another while at the same time giving selflessly to the art community. Her story is an inspiring one for when you feel stuck, like many of us do at times. Read on…

Augusta loved clay from her earliest years, often choosing to slip off to gather earthen clay to model ducks and birds. This is were she discovered her gifts as a sculptor, against her father’s wishes, often detouring to gather earthen clay on her way to school.

Augusta married John T. Moore, 1907 and they had a child, Irene born in 1908, John T. died a few years later. In 1915 the family moved to West Palm Beach, Florida and their life improved significantly. She married James Savage, a carpenter soon after. She kept the name Savage throughout her life, even though they divorced in the early 1920’s. Since there was no clay soil in the area she was not able to sculpt. Then one day she was riding with Professor Mickens, principal of the public school and she discovered the Chase Pottery with heaps of clay. She jumped out of the wagon and begged for some clay from the owner. With the 25lbs. of clay she created an 18? Virgin Mary, now lost, and won the approval and blessing of her father, now a Methodist Minister.

The professor discovered her modeling talents and offered her $1.00 per day to teach clay modeling classes to high school students with clay donated by Mr. Chase. Since she discovered a good source for clay, her artistic desire thrived in West Palm Beach.

Augusta Savage is known for her portrait busts of famous men as well as ordinary people in the African American community. Here, she has chosen to portray a young, innocent African American girl, Leonore.

She convinced the superintendent of the fair, George Graham Currie, to let her set up a booth to sell her animal sculptures. In 1919 fair officials at first objected to a black woman having her own booth, but they finally agreed and her animals were very popular, especially to the visiting tourists, “best ever?. She exhibited and sold her work at the Palm Beach County Fair and was awarded a ribbon and received a $25.00 prize and earned $150.00. She received recognition from Senator Thomas Campbell of Florida, who encouraged her to pursue further art studies in New York.

Mr. Currie believed that Augusta had talent and encouraged her to study art. He was aware of who’s – who in New York and had previously met Solan Borglum of NY, the brother of Gutzan Borglum, who carved the presidents on Mt. Rushmore. He gave her a letter of introduction to Solan Borglum of New York to study art in New York City.

Augusta Savage in her studio with “The Harp”, based on ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ by James Weldon Johnson (photo by Morgan & Marvin Smith, 1936)

Augusta didn’t go directly to New York. She had plans to become a teacher so she briefly attended the State Normal College for Color Students (known today as FAMU) in Tallahassee.

By 1921, she became aware of the work and thoughts of equal opportunity advocates, such as James Weldon Johnson, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Alice Mickens; they become aware of her too. She spent a few months in Jacksonville with a desire to create busts of prominent and affluent African Americans; however, “rich folks refused to be done.? While living in the most populated city in Florida just a few miles north of her birth place, she struggled to support herself so she made the Great Migration north.

Arriving in New York City during the late summer of 1921, Augusta had $4.60, a letter of introduction and “a determination to learn sculpting in six months.? With hope of attending the School of American Sculpting, after she arrived she realized that she was unable to afford to study there. Mr. Borglum told her “the young ladies who come here are the children of the rich and pay immense fees.? He suggested Bratt Institute or Copper Union, and knew that Copper Union was “tuition free?. Copper Union had 142 women on the waiting list “A young colored man who, undaunted, spoke up for her.? She met with the principal, presented Borglum’s card… modeled a piece overnight and was mailed an acceptance letter. She landed a job as an apartment caretaker to cover living expenses. Three months later, though, she lost her job and soon found herself penniless The Copper Union Advisory Board recognized her talent and potential. They voted to supply funds for her living expenses. This was the first time the school sponsored a student. Augusta Savage completed the 4 year course in less than 3 years.

By 1923 she gathered $500 in cash and pledges and was one of 100 women selected to participate in a summer artist scholarship program at Fontainebleau, outside Paris, France; however, she was denied because of her race. She brought the issue of discrimination towards African-American artists to the public’s attention and caused quite uproar. May 20, 1923, in a letter to New York World she demanded “How am I to compete with other American artists if I am not given the same opportunity?” The committee hoped that the rejection would cause her simply to fade away. They were very much mistaken. Some members of the committee saw her as “a troublemaker.?

Augusta said “Democracy is a strange thing. My brother was good enough to be accepted in one of the regiments that saw service in France during the war, but it seems his sister is not good enough to be a guest of the country for which he fought.?

Miss Savage decided to fight for her rights. She could not leave well enough alone. She opened any and all doors by appealing to the Ethical Culture Society. The writer Jessie Fauset would immortalize Savage’s case in her novel Plum Bun (1929) and the April 24, 1923 New York Times reported “Negress Denied Entry to French Art School.”

The American sculptor Hermon A. MacNeil, president of the National Sculpture Society invited her to study with him at his studio on Long Island in an attempt to make amends.

The debacle made her a provisional celebrity. She was befriended by many, one of which was Robert L. Poston, a writer for Negro World and the secretary-general of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). They fell in love and married in June 1923.

Poston, a poet and literary critic, was an ambitious, highly energetic man who often traveled about the country and the world preaching Garveyite philosophy. Six months after their wedding, Poston sailed to Liberia as head of a UNIA delegation for talks with that country’s government. He died of pneumonia in March 1924. She was expecting a child and spent some time with her family in West Palm Beach. On July 21, 1924, she gave birth to a baby girl, Roberta L. Poston, who died ten days later. She then returned to New York in September. She never remarried, however, she kept his memory alive. Augusta Savage desired to work for racial pride, economic opportunity and self-reliance, however, she did not believe in the “back-to-Africa? philosophy of the “Garveyites?.

She became recognized as a portrait sculptor and was commissioned to sculpt busts of leading black figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson and other African-American leaders. She was one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. She became a leader of social and political reform and the realization of opportunities for black artists and the Harlem community at large.

Following this period, she worked in steam laundries to earn money to care for her family and to save for studies in Europe. She worked to remain focused. In 1926 she exhibited her work at our Nation’s Sesquicentennial in Philadelphia “America Welcomes the World? (June1- December 1) and at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. Her resolve was to succeed inspiring the Friends of the New York Public Library to commission her to create a bust of W. E. B. Du Bois. During that time she created Green Apples and inspired “Fire!!” a bold periodical founded by African-American writers Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Bruce Nugent.

In 1928, her plans were somewhat derailed. Her family suffered a series of tragedies. Her brother who fought in WWI died while attempting to rescue people in the aftermath of the September 1926 south Florida hurricane. The 125mph winds devastated her parents homestead in West Palm Beach causing her entire family to move north and live with her in a small apartment in Harlem. Then the following year her father died. She was left with the financial responsibilities of his funeral expenses.

By 1929 the sculpture of a young boy dramatized her perception of a “street boy”, entitled “Gamin” (above), it finally provided her the opportunity to be recognized by the chief stock holder of the Sears, Roebuck and Company, Julius Rosenwald, to continue her art studies in Europe. To qualify she assembled a display of her existing work for the review committee. She enthusiastically selected her best works, using the small Gamin as the centerpiece, hoping to overwhelm the scholarship committee. Results – Approved $1,500 – $1,800 to “unlock the door? to Europe and her future as a sculptor.

In 1929 -1930 she was awarded two successive Julius Rosenwald Grants funding her long awaited trip to Europe. Additionally, she received supplemental funding from a Carnegie grant, donations from friends and African American teachers in Florida for studies abroad. She studied at Acaedemie de la Grande in France. She also studied in Belgium and Germany, where she expanded her skills with clay, plaster, bronze portraits, and then began working with marble and wood. Some of her pieces were exhibited at the Salon d’Automne (1930) and Siciete des Artistes Francais (1931). She received: Citation from the Salon d’Automne; Citation, Salon Printemps at the Grande Palais, Paris; Medallion, French Govt. Colonial Exposition. By 1932 the Rosenwald grant had run out of funds…. the Great Depression little hope for scholarships.

When she returned to New York in September 1931, the sales of art was virtually at a standstill. She turns her efforts to teaching art by founding her own school of arts and crafts in Harlem. Young folks would pass by the 163 West 143rd Street studio and Miss Savage would invite them in… if interested she would give them a broom. At first they learned to sweep and clean up, she wanted to see if they really wanted to learn… Many did! Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, Norman Lewis, William Artis and Ernest Crichlow to name a few.

Even though the soup lines were long and the man in the White House said “a chicken in every pot.? and there was not any money for “the arts?, Augusta Savage continued her work. She gained the attention of the National Association of Woman Painters and Sculptors and became the first African American to gain acceptance. She was impressive; a leader, a pioneer, and very compelling.

By 1937 she was the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center, an institution funded by the Work Progress Administration (WPA) and the assistant supervisor of the Federal Arts Project for New York City, one of the WPA’s biggest art programs,. As a dedicated teacher she put her own work aside in order to encourage gifted children and also helped organize the Harlem Arts Guild.

One of the highlights was her involvement with the “306” Group–so named because of the location of Charles Alston studio (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 Beardon, Jacob Lawrence and Morgan and Marvin Smith.

She continued her art work leading to a commission by the 1939 New York World’s Fair Corporation. Augusta Savage was the only black woman invited to participate, the design committee paid her $1,200. She took a leave of absence from work at the center to what was her last major work. The Fair’s theme read: “To contribute a Happier Way of American Living by demonstrating how it can be achieved through the growing interdependence of men of every class and function and by showing the things, ideas and forces at work in the world which are the tools of today and with which the better world of tomorrow is to be built.”

Her 16’ iconic sculpture, “Lift Every Voice and Sing? (above) inspired by the song created by Jacksonville Florida brothers, James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson, helped people of the world to celebrate “the American Negro’s contribution to music, especially in song?. Some called it “The Harp.? Her creation interpreted African-American faces as if they were singing… at the top of the harp strings, and the instrument’s sounding board is transformed into a hand and arm. In the foreground, the figure of a young man kneeled, offering music in his hands. It is considered to be one of her major works. The sculpture was located just inside the Rainbow Avenue gate adjacent to the Contemporary Arts Building at the World’s Fair and viewed by almost fifty million people, gaining her international recognition. Sadly, it was destroyed after the fair.

She exhibited in Chicago in 1940. Afterward Miss Savage moved from Harlem and maintained a studio in Saugerties, New York. After 1945, Augusta Savage reduced the amount of sculpting she did, no longer being in the spotlight She continued to work and teach throughout her life remaining as committed to advancing educational opportunities for African Americans, as to creating art.

Augusta Christine Fells Savage died of cancer on March 26, 1962, in New York City. While she was all but forgotten at the time of her death, Savage is remembered today as a great artist, activist, and arts educator, serving as an inspiration to the many that she taught, inspired and encouraged.

“The Pugilist” (above), 1942, says it all. Head tilted upward, facing the world… calm…folded arms yet ready for the next challenge the world may present…it expresses Augusta Savage’s life.

“I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, 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.” —Augusta Savage, Metropolitan Magazine, Jan. 1935

Info& Images: Green Cove Springs, Florida: Local Notable

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