Augusta Savage was one of the most important Black artists and activists of all time. A sculptor, and a critical part of the Harlem Renaissance, she was also a teacher. Her studio was a crucial influence on the development of a string of artists who would go on to be internationally recognised, including Jacob Lawrence.
Campaigning for equal rights for African-Americans in the arts, the steps Savage took were bold but necessary, and she did what she could in the face of insidious de facto and de jure racism. Today, she is rightly seen as a trailblazer.
Born in 1892, in Green Cove Springs near Jacksonville, Floria, Savage had experimented with making figures from an early age, mainly making small animals out of the natural red clay she found in abundance in her hometown. Reflecting the hardship she faced from the get-go, her father was a poor Methodist minister who was vehemently opposed to his daughter’s interest in art, and he did all he could to stop it.
“My father licked me four or five times a week,” Savage recalled later, “And almost whipped all the art out of me.” At the time, her father believed sculpture was a sinful practice, as he’d interpreted the “graven images” segment of the Bible to mean this.
The family moved to West Palm Beach in 1915. Undeterred by her father’s objections to her art, the principal of her new school encouraged her work and allowed her to teach clay modelling classes later on. From then on, Savage was committed to both creating and teaching art.
One of Savage’s most significant encounters with America’s evil racism came in 1923. That year, she applied for a summer art programme at the world-renowned Fountainbleau School of Fine Arts in France. Initially, she was accepted, but when the American selection committee found out she was black, they rescinded her offer, fearing objections from the Southern white women who held so much unchecked power.
Understandably, Savage was both deeply upset and incensed by the committee’s choice. This was the turning point in her life and the start of her unrelenting activism. She would then go on to fight for equal rights for the rest of her life. Appeals were even made to the French government to change the decision, but they were ineffective, and Savage never studied at Fontainebleau.
Luckily for Savage, this miscarriage of justice would also have a positive effect on her life. The incident became a moderate news story in America and Europe, and finally, one committee member pledged their support to her. This was Hermon Atkins MacNeil, the sculptor who once shared a studio with Black America’s first internationally celebrated painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner. MacNeil invited Savage to study under him, and later she hailed him as a crucial teacher.
Sometime later, Savage worked in Manhattan, New York. She obtained her first commission from Harlem Library for a bust of W. E. B. Du Bois, the legendary Pan-Africanist thinker. Her bust was lauded, and it invited a flurry of other commissions, including a bust of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey.
Around this time, her bust of the essayist William Picken Sr., a key figure in the early days of the NAACP, earned widespread acclaim for her depiction of an African American in more of a candid, natural way, opposed to the grossly exaggerated racial stereotypes that were ubiquitous in visual art at the time. This humane depiction of African-Americans became the most notable feature of her sculptures and set a precedent for all those who followed, not to mention Jacob Lawrence and his Migration Series.
In 1923, Savage married Robert Lincoln Poston, one of Garvey’s protégès. Tragically though, Poston died whilst returning from Liberia after being on a mission as part of the historic Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League delegation in 1924.
Savage was awarded the Otto Kahn Prize in a 1928 exhibition at The Harmon Foundation for one of her busts. This was hugely significant, as she had long been a fervent critic of the fetishisation of the “negro primitive” aesthetic that white patrons favoured. Going one step further with her subversion, publicly, Savage critiqued the director of The Harmon Foundation, Mary Beattie Brady, for the low standards she set for black art and her general lack of understanding of visual arts.
Eventually, in 1929, aged 37, Savage was able to travel to France, with the help of resources from the Urban League, Rosenwald Foundation and a Carnegie Foundation grant. She lived in the creative hotspot of Montparnasse and worked in the studio of M. Benneteau. Unfortunately, although the studio once supported her work, she wrote: “The masters are not in sympathy as they all have their own definite ideas and usually wish their pupils to follow their particular method”.
As of 1930, Savage worked primarily on her own. By this time, her work was hailed in the African-American community, and fundraising parties were held in Harlem and Greenwich for her. Additionally, women’s groups and teachers from Florida A&M University sent her money to continue her studies abroad.
Whilst in Paris, she attended a leading Paris school of art, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Studying under the sculptor Charles Despiau, she took her skills to the next level. She took her work to exhibitions, winning awards on two occasions, at the Paris Salon and Exposition, another colossal feat. Afterwards, she toured the continent researching sculpture in museums and cathedrals.
Savage then returned to the US in 1931, totally galvanised by her achievements and studies. In the face of The Great Depression, she carried on making art and in 1934 became the first African-American artist to be elected onto the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.
It was here when she launched her iconic Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, in a basement in Harlem. It was open to anyone who wanted to practice art, and it eventually became the home to a string of future artists, including Gwendolyn Knight, Norman Lewis and Lawrence.
Interestingly, the now-famous sociologist Kenneth B. Clark was also a student of hers. His research contributed to the groundbreaking 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which found school segregation to be unconstitutional, a key turning point in the civil rights struggle.
The school then developed into the Harlem Community Art Centre, with 1500 people participating in her workshops, learning from the multi-cultural staff, and exhibiting work around New York City.
Showing just how pioneering Savage was, in 1939, she was one of four women and only two African Americans who were commissioned by the Board of Design to be included in New York’s World’s Fair. For it, she created her famous 16-foot sculpture, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and it became one of the convention’s hottest attractions.
Most of Savage’s work is in clay or plaster, as bronze was a material that was out of reach for even the most prominent African-American artist of the day. Despite this, Savage still managed to create a whole host of significant works. Her career-defining bust, Gamin, is now housed on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Modelled after a Harlem youth, it’s a realistic and expressive piece that echoed the sentiment of all her other works. She depicted African-Americans in the way that they’d always wanted, like normal people. In this sense, her contribution to the world of art cannot be understated.
Savage died on March 26th, 1962 in New York City. Living in obscurity at the time of her death, today, she is remembered for the tremendous advancements she made for African-Americans in art, as well as in broader culture. She inspired everyone she came into contact with and is rightly hailed as one of the most significant African-Americans in history.
We must not forget her story. Augusta Savage continually triumphed in the face of adversity and, via sheer genius and resourcefulness, inspired generations.