Sculptor Augusta Savage Said Her Legacy Was The Work Of Her Students

Jul 15, 2019
Originally published on August 1, 2019 8:31 pm

Sculptor Augusta Savage once said: "I was a Leap Year baby, and it seems to me that I have been leaping ever since." Born on Feb. 29, 1892, Savage leapt from the Jim Crow South to public attention in the Harlem Renaissance, but is little known today. Now, her work is the focus of an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, curated by Jeffreen Hayes and coordinated for the historical society by Wendy N.E. Ikemoto.

Savage grew up in Green Cove Springs, a brick-making town in Florida. "It had all of this natural red clay, and so Savage would seek out those red clay pits as a child," explains Ikemoto. But before long, "she stopped making mud pies and started making things."

Savage's 1942 terracotta Portrait of a Baby recalls the small, red clay sculptures she made as a child.
New-York Historical Society

Savage's father — a fundamentalist minister — disapproved. He viewed his daughter's little clay figures as graven images and punished her for them. Savage later recalled her father beating her several times a week; "He nearly whipped all the art out of me," she said.

But a teacher spotted the girl's talent and encouraged her. Eventually, with $4.60 cents in her pocket, she moved to Harlem, cleaned houses to pay her rent, and studied at The Cooper Union School of Art.

At 30, she got a scholarship to the Fontainebleau School of the Arts in Paris. But when the American selection committee found out she was black, they rescinded the offer, fearing objections from Southern white women. The reasoning was the white women "would feel uncomfortable sharing accommodations on the ship, sharing a studio, sharing living spaces," Ikemoto explains. "And the way that these committee members expressed that decision and the justification for it — they were concerned about Savage. It would be uncomfortable for her."

Savage modeled Gamin on her nephew, Ellis Ford. It is made of painted plaster.
New-York Historical Society

Savage got to Paris anyway. She spent three years there — studying, working, exhibiting, and winning awards.

During the Depression, Savage returned to Harlem and turned her studio into a school, where she gave free art lessons. Jacob Lawrence — noted painter of the great African American migration north — was one of her students. The school was an early step in her lifetime of social activism. Blending activism and art became her mission.

Savage's 1929 sculpture Gamin, shows a child in a soft cap and wrinkled shirt. Bronze was too expensive, so instead Savage made her sculpture with white plaster covered with brown paint mixed with shoe polish. "What's so remarkable about this work is that, quite simply, it presented an African American child in a realistic and humane fashion," Ikemoto says. Thousands of kids came to see Gamin on exhibit, and "they saw themselves as fine art."

A souvenir version of Savage's 1939 sculpture The Harp, which was inspired by "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
1939 World's Fair Committee

Throughout the 1930s, Savage sculpted portrait busts of African American leaders, including NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the lyrics of the anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing." When the 1939 New York World's Fair commissioned Savage to make a sculpture she produced a monumental work called Lift Every Voice and Sing. World's Fair officials changed the name to The Harp.

"The strings of the harp are formed by the folds of choir robes worn by 12 African American singers," Ikemoto explains. "Then, the soundboard of the harp is formed by the hand of God." The singers, then, become instruments of God. Five million visitors saw The Harp and it became one of the Fair's most photographed objects — you can see photos of it here. Sixteen feet high, made of painted plaster, Ikemoto says it was destroyed — smashed by clean-up bulldozers — at the end of the fair.

Savage, who died in 1962, said that her lasting "monument" would be the artwork of the young people she taught. But you can see her work in the New-York Historical Society's retrospective, on view through July 28.

Clarification: 7/18/19

In the audio version of this report, we say Wendy Ikemoto curated the "Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman" show in New York. Ikemoto is associate curator of American art at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library. It is more accurate to say she coordinated the show. Jeffreen Hayes originally curated the show, for the Cummer Museum of Arts & Gardens in Jacksonville, Fla.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

The sculptor Augusta Savage once said, I was a leap year baby, and it seems to me that I've been leaping ever since. Savage was a black woman from the Jim Crow South. She leapt to public attention during the Harlem Renaissance, but she's not very well-known today. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says an exhibition at the New York Historical Society will bring her new acclaim.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTIQUES ROADSHOW")

ERIC SILVER: This is her most famous work. It's called Gamin.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In 2002, a small portrait busts by Augusta Savage was brought to "Antiques Roadshow."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTIQUES ROADSHOW")

SILVER: I think you might be surprised. This is worth between $15,000 and $20,000 dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: With a crack?

SILVER: With a crack, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's wonderful. I cannot believe that.

STAMBERG: Thirteen years later, "Roadshow" reevaluated the piece - $8,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: Augusta Savage made the sculpture around 1929 in plaster. She couldn't afford bronze, so she covered the white plaster in brown paint mixed with shoe polish. Gamin is a child of the streets, an urchin in a soft cap, a wrinkled shirt and dignity, pride in his eyes.

WENDY N E IKEMOTO: What's so remarkable about this work is that, quite simply, it presented an African American child in a realistic and humane fashion.

STAMBERG: Not as some stereotype derided, demeaned. Thousands of kids came to see Gamin on exhibit.

IKEMOTO: And they saw themselves as fine art.

STAMBERG: Wendy Ikemoto curated the Savage show in New York. It was organized by the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Fla., near where the artist was born.

IKEMOTO: Green Cove Springs was a brick-making town because it had all of this natural red clay. And so Savage would seek out those red clay pits as a child, and she says that at the mud-pie age, she stopped making mud pies and started making things.

STAMBERG: Savage's father, a fundamentalist minister, disapproved. To him, her little clay figures were graven images. He punished her.

IKEMOTO: Savage recounts later, my father licked me five or six times a week, and nearly whipped all the art out of me.

STAMBERG: But a teacher spotted the girl's talent and encouraged it. Eventually, with $4.60 in her pocket, she moved to Harlem, cleaned houses to pay her rent and began to study art. At 30, she got a scholarship to an art school in Paris. But when the American selection committee found out she was black, they reneged; their reason - white Southern girls might object.

IKEMOTO: That they would feel uncomfortable sharing accommodations on the ship, sharing a studio, sharing living spaces. And the way that these committee members expressed that decision and the justification for it, they were concerned about Savage; it would be uncomfortable for her.

STAMBERG: Savage got there anyway.

IKEMOTO: She did, six years later. She spent three years there, and she exhibited. She won awards.

STAMBERG: Back in Harlem during the Depression, Savage turned her studio into a school and gave free art lessons. Jacob Lawrence, noted painter of The Great African American Migration North (ph), was one of her students. The school was an early step in her lifetime of social activism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing.

STAMBERG: Throughout the 1930s, Savage sculpted portrait busts of African American leaders, including NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the words to this anthem. The 1939 New York World's Fair commissioned her to sculpt a monumental work - it's called The Harp.

IKEMOTO: The strings of the harp are formed by the folds of choir robes worn by 12 African American singers. Then the soundboard of the harp is formed by the hand of God.

STAMBERG: The singers then became instruments of God. Five million visitors saw the harp, and it became one of the fair's most photographed objects. Sixteen feet high, made of painted plaster, Augusta Savage didn't have the money to cast it in bronze.

IKEMOTO: So at the end of the world's fair, the work was destroyed. It was smashed by bulldozers during the fair's cleanup.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Sing a song...

STAMBERG: Augusta Savage died in 1962. A little-known, completely dedicated product of determination and the Harlem Renaissance. The retrospective of her work is at the New York Historical Society through July 28.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In the audio version of this report, we say Wendy Ikemoto curated the “Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman” show in New York. Ikemoto is associate curator of American art at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library. It is more accurate to say she coordinated the show. It was originally curated by Jeffreen Hayes for the Cummer Museum of Arts & Gardens in Jacksonville, Fla.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.