Augusta Savage, born Augusta Christine Fells, lived from February 29, 1892 – March 26, 1962. She 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.
Augusta Fells (Savage) was born in Green Cove Springs (near Jacksonville), Florida. She began making clay figures as a child, mostly small animals, but her father would beat her when he found her sculptures. This was because at that time, he believed her sculpture to be a sinful practice, based upon his interpretation of the "graven images" portion of the Bible. After the family moved to West Palm Beach, she sculpted a Virgin Mary figure, and, upon seeing it, her father changed his mind, regretting his past actions. The principal of her new school 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.
In 1907, she married John Moore; they had a daughter, Irene. John died shortly after. Fells moved back in with her parents, who raised Irene with her. Fells continued to model clay, and applied for a booth at the Palm Beach county fair: the initially apprehensive fair officials ended up awarding her a 25 dollar prize, and the sales of her art totaled 175 dollars; a significant sum at that time and place.
That success encouraged her to apply to Cooper Union (Art School) in New York City, where she was admitted in October, 1921. During this time she married James Savage; they divorced after a few months, but she kept the name of Savage. 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 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 at Cooper Union, 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. During this time she obtained her first commission, for a bust of W. E. B. DuBois for the Harlem Library. Her outstanding sculpture brought more commissions, including one for a bust of Marcus Garvey.
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. She pushed on, and in 1934 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 (artist), 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. 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 PA helped, but old struggles of discrimination were revived between Savage and WPA officials who objected to her having a leadership role (AHOAAA p. 174).
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.
Savage opened 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. She worked on a mushroom farm, and made little or no effort to talk about or create art. Her few neighbors said that she was always making something with her hands (AHOAAA, p. 179).
Savage lived her last days with her daughter Irene at her home in New York, where she died.
Much of her work is in clay or plaster, as she did not often have the funds for 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.
June 20, 1939. (artist Augusta Savage held the First Annual Exhibition Salon of Contemporary Negro Art on this date)(This Week in Black History)(Brief Article)
Jun 24, 1996; * June 20, 1939--Augusta Savage, noted sculptor and art teacher, presented the First Annual Exhibition Salon of Contemporary...