Black News and News Makers in History: Augusta Savage

Black news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes Augusta Savage this week in Black history.Augusta Savage, born Augusta Christine Fells, in Green Cove Springs near Jacksonville, Florida on February 29, 1892, the seventh of fourteen children to Edward Fells (a Methodist minister), and Cornelia (Murphy) Fells.  Augusta was an African-American sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was also a teacher and her studio was important to the careers of a rising generation of artists who would become nationally known. She worked for equal rights for African Americans in the arts.

She began making clay figures as a child, mostly small animals.  Due to religious reasons, her family attempted to dissuade her from making “graven images.”  However, after her family moved West Palm Beach, despite her family’s religious objections, she sculpted a Virgin Mary which influenced her family to change their minds.  At her new high school, the principal recognized and encouraged her talent, and paid her one dollar a day to teach modeling during her senior year. This began a life-long commitment to teaching as well as to art.  She attended Florida State Normal School (now Florida A & M University).

In 1907, she married John T. Moore; they had a daughter, Irene.  John died shortly after.  She moved back in with her parents, who raised Irene with her.

Around 1915, she married James Savage, a carpenter.  However, they divorced after a short time.  She kept the name of Savage.

She continued to model clay, and while in college, applied for a booth at the Palm Beach county fair: the initially apprehensive fair officials ended up awarding her a $25 prize, and the sales of her art totaled $175, a significant sum at that time and place.

The fair's superintendent encouraged her to go to New York to study art, and she was able to enroll at Cooper Union (Art School) in New York City.  And, with the success of the fair, she was encouraged to apply, gaining acceptance October 1921.  She excelled in her art classes at Cooper, and was accelerated through foundation classes. Her talent and ability so impressed the staff and faculty at Cooper, that she was awarded funds for room and board, tuition being already covered for all Cooper students. 

In 1923,  Savage applied for a summer art program sponsored by the French government; despite being more than qualified, she was turned down by the international judging committee, solely because she was black (Bearden & Henderson, AHOAAA, p. 169-170). Savage was deeply upset, and questioned the committee, beginning the first of many public fights for equal rights in her life. The incident got press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, and eventually the sole supportive committee member, sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil—who at one time had shared a studio with Henry Ossawa Tanner—invited her to study with him.  She later cited him as one of her teachers.

After completing studies early at Cooper Union in 1924, Savage worked in Manhattan steam laundries to support herself and her family. Her father had been paralyzed by a stroke, and the family's home destroyed by a hurricane.  Her family from Florida moved into her small West 137th Street apartment.

A librarian found out about her financial problems, and arranged for her to sculpt a bust of African American leader, W.E.B. DuBois, for the 135th St. branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem.  Her outstanding sculpture brought more commissions, including one for a bust of Marcus Garvey.

In 1923, Savage married Robert Lincoln Poston, a protégé of Garvey.  Poston died aboard a ship returning from Liberia as part of a Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League delegation in 1924.

In 1924, the sculpture of her nephew, Gamin, won the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship which gave her the opportunity to study in Paris for one year. After returning home from Europe, Savage shared her art and experiences through teaching in the Harlem community.

In 1925, Savage won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome; the scholarship covered only tuition, however, and she was not able to raise money for travel and living expenses. Thus, she was unable to attend.

Knowledge of Savage's talent and struggles became widespread in the African-American community; fund-raising parties were held in Harlem and Greenwich Village, and African-American women's groups and teachers from Florida A&M all sent her money for studies abroad.

In 1929, with assistance as well from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Savage enrolled and attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, a leading Paris art school. In Paris, she studied with the sculptor Charles Despiau. She exhibited and won awards in two Salons and one Exposition. She toured France, Belgium, and Germany, researching sculpture in cathedrals and museums.

Savage returned to the United States in 1931, energized from her studies and achievements. The Great Depression had nearly stopped art sales.

In 1934, she became the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She then launched the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, located in a basement on West 143rd Street in Harlem. She opened her studio to anyone who wanted to paint, draw, or sculpt. Her many young students would include the future nationally known artists Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Gwendolyn Knight. Another student was the sociologist Kenneth B. Clark, whose later research contributed to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled school segregation unconstitutional.

In 1937, her school evolved into the Harlem Community Art Center; 1500 people of all ages and abilities participated in her workshops, learning from her multi-cultural staff, and showing work around NYC. Funds from the Works Progress Administration helped, but old struggles of discrimination were revived between Savage and WPA officials who objected to her having a leadership role.

Savage received a commission from the 1939 New York World's Fair; she created “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, inspired by the song by James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson. The 16-foot-tall plaster sculpture was the most popular and most photographed work at the fair; small metal souvenir copies were sold, and many postcards of the piece were purchased. Savage did not have funds to have it cast in bronze, or to move and store it. Like other temporary installations, the sculpture was destroyed at the close of the fair, but some photographs remain.

In 1939, Savage opened the first of two galleries whose shows were well attended and well reviewed, but few sales resulted, and the galleries closed.

Deeply depressed by the financial struggle, in the 1940s Savage moved to a farm in Saugerties (near Woodstock, New York), where she stayed until 1960. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 as the Augusta Savage House and Studio.  

Shortly before her death on March 26, 1962, she moved to be near her daughter, Irene, near New York City.

Augusta Savage struggled to succeed as a sculptor despite barriers of race and sex.  Much of her work is in clay or plaster, as she could not often afford bronze.  

One of her most famous busts is titled Gamin, which is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Her style can be described as realistic, expressive, and sensitive. Though her art and influence within the art community is documented, the location of much of her work is unknown.

A biography of Augusta Savage intended for younger readers has been written by author Alan Schroeder. “In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage” was released in September 2009 by Lee and Low, a New York publishing company.

Compiled from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aaworld/arts/savage.html, Wikipedia, http://womenshistory.about.com/od/artsculpture/p/augusta_savage.htm, and http://www.biography.com/articles/Augusta-Savage-40495.