When I look at this photo of the “The Harp” by Augusta Savage, I see the determination and beauty that exemplifies her and her fighting spirit.
The black paint finish on plaster sculpture was commissioned by the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The complex piece, inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s lyrics, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was known as one of Savage’s most popular work, and featured a kneeling man in front of a harp-life composition of singing children. Due to its discussion of the power of spirituals and African-American musical traditions, the 16 ft. sculpture was not well received by many artists at the time. Sadly, the statue was bulldozed along with the fair’s buildings, because Savage did not have the funds to move or store it.
Born in 1892 in Green Cove Springs, FL, Augusta Christine Fells began making clay animals during her childhood in the town’s clay pits. Her fundamentalist father, Reverend Edward Fells, punished her constantly with beatings, because he saw her talents as a sin. It wasn’t until Savage sculpted a Virgin Mary in high school, to her teachers’ acclaim, that he relented, and the school hired her to teach clay modeling during her senior year.
Savage took her clay modeling skills to the county fair and sold a significant number of clay animals while winning a prize for her original display. The County Fair superintendent took an interest in her and commissioned her to sculpt a portrait.
Later, the superintendent wrote to a leading sculptor in New York about Savage, and she moved there, and enrolled in Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The school was so impressed with her that it waved her tuition, room and board, as well as paid for her transportation.
When she was denied entrance to a summer art school in Fontainebleau, France, her career spiraled downward. Devastated that her application was rejected because she was black, she fought to expose the admission committee’s decision. The incident received international coverage in the media. Eventually the sole supportive committee member, a white sculptor, originally from Massachusetts, 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.
Her public fight for justice and equality upset the art community, and earned her the reputation of being a troublemaker. Many leading institutions and exhibitions blacklisted her for the rest of her career.
The Library in Harlem, however, did not blacklist her, but instead commissioned her to sculpt a bust of W. E. B. Du Bois. The work was so awesome that she was later asked to create one of Marcus Garvey. Du Bois was so impressed that he vigorously tried to assist in getting Savage’s career back on tract. He also secured a scholarship for her in 1925 to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, but Savage could not raise the needed funds for her fare and living expenses. Through it all, Salvage persevered and continued to exhibit sculptures at the Harlem branch library.
In 1929, Savage’s career improved with the sculpture of “Gamin.” This outstanding bust portrait, of a Harlem street boy is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It earned her immediate acclaim and support from Harlem businessmen, and they recommended her to the Rosenwald Fund, which resulted in the receipt of successive fellowships, and proceeds from fund-raising parties. Those funds enabled her to enroll in the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris, where she studied for a year with leading artists, and received acclaim for her work.
Upon returning to the U.S. in 1931, Savage was able to support herself through commissions from portraits of Black leaders like James Weldon Johnson. She opened the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts for anyone who wanted to paint, draw or sculpt. Her many young students included Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis and Gwendolyn Knight. The studio later became known as the Harlem Community Arts Center, where 1500 people participated in her workshops.
In keeping with activism activities of her early years, and in response to struggles over supervisory jobs for African-Americans, Savage led in organizing the Harlem Artists Guild and the Vanguard Club to address the needs of African-American artists and their communities. This led to accusations of her being a supporter of Communism. As a result of the accusations, she resigned from Vanguard, and eventually closed the Harlem Community Arts Center.
It was against this backdrop that the great commission in 1937 happened for “The Harp.” Savage attempted to use the praise from this work to stage a one-woman show at Argent Gallery. However, much of the accompanying work was old, and did not earn critical praise. This disappointment led to her closing her private art gallery, and embarking upon an unsuccessful tour sponsored by the Architectural League of Washington in 1940.
Savage reached her wits in when she did not win any mentions for her work at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago. It was then that she began abandoning and destroying her own work. She left New York City in the early 1940s and moved to an old farm in Saugerties, New York. Only when her health declined in the late 1950s did she return to New York City for care, and passed away in 1962.
The Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, a Baltimore, Maryland public high school, is named in her honor. Savage was inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame in 2008. She was nominated by her hometown of Green Cove Springs, Florida. I am in awe of Augusta Savage’s ability to maintain her career in times of constant economic difficulties, discrimination and blacklisting, and for her bravery in taking on hard issues in politics and bureaucracy.
Augusta Savage is an artist that inspires me.