While flipping through the app Flipboard this morning, I ran across a story in my “Black History” news category that really caught my attention. Author Keisha N. Blain, a historian and writer, shared the contributions of sculptor Augusta Savage (February 29, 1892 – March 27, 1962). Savage is known as perhaps one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century, becoming a leading artist in the Harlem Renaissance (She was commissioned to make busts for the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey). She was also an outspoken activist and helped a great deal of famous artists make a name for themselves when they were getting their start. While her work was loved during her life, a lot of it didn’t survive because, according to Blain, Augusta could “mostly afford to cast only in plaster.” However, images of her work still remain, as does her influence on the arts. Here are five things to know about Augusta Savage, the sculptor, teacher and proponent of social and political change.
She Was the Seventh of 14 Children and Her Father Didn’t Want Her Doing Art
According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Augusta Savage, born Augusta Christine Fells, was the seventh of 14 children. Her father, Edward Fells, was not a supporter of her early interest in sculpting (using clay) when she was young. The Methodist minister felt that the images she constructed were “graven” and against the 10 commandments. According to Augusta, her father used to whip her a few times a week over her artwork, recalling that he “almost whipped all the art out of me.”
She Started Teaching Clay Scultpture as a Teenager
By the time Augusta started high school, her talents were too great to ignore. When she was 15, going to school in West Palm Beach, Fla., her teachers caught wind of her work. She was asked to teach clay-modeling lessons to other students during her senior year of school with the principal paying Augusta a dollar a day for her work.
She Lost a Scholarship at an Art School When They Found out She Was Black
According to Timeline, after making busts for Du Bois and Garvey, Augusta won a scholarship at a summer arts program set up by the prestigious Fontainebleau School of the Fine Arts near Paris. Unfortunately, the scholarship was revoked after the school found out that she was a Black woman. She spoke out about the injustice of this, even sending letters to newspapers in New York, filing a complaint with the Ethical Culture Committee, and gaining support from different Black leaders. Unfortunately, despite her best efforts, the school’s committee stuck by its decision to keep her out of the program. Thankfully, that didn’t hold Augusta back. She ended up obtaining a fellowship in Paris after a bronze work she did of her nephew, titled “Gamin,” garnered a great deal of attention. While there, she was able to exhibit her work in multiple galleries and collaborated with different popular Black artists residing in Paris.
One of Her Most Famous Works, “The Harp,” Was Inspired by “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
Augusta was commissioned by the New York World’s Fair of 1939 to put together a sculpture that celebrated the musical contributions of Black folks. Inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as well as negro spirituals and hymns as a whole, she crafted her largest work, The Harp. The sculpture was 16 feet tall, and fashioned a traditional harp to have Black youth in graduated heights sculpted into the strings. It was Augusta’s last major commission, and unfortunately, it was destroyed when the fair came to an end.
She Helped Other Famous Artists Get Their Start
After her time in Paris and both before and after creating The Harp for the New York World’s Fair of 1939, Augusta spent a lot of her time teaching. She even started her own art school in Harlem called the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts. Augusta also opened a gallery that provided a space for burgeoning Black artists to showcase their work, helping future prominent talents like Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight and Norman Lewis cultivate their skills.