Black Women Artists: Augusta Savage
Katherine Ellington, a New York City medical humanities scholar and researcher, discusses the work and legacy of legendary artist Augusta Savage:
The Harlem Renaissance is described as a cultural, social and artistic time of illumination, which began in the 1920s when black life inspired the work of young black artists that emerged with stories that have left an indelible mark on our history. Augusta Savage was among this group of artists who came to Harlem from the Jim Crow South in search of opportunity and where her creative expression could thrive.
My quest for Augusta Savage (1892 –1962) sculpture led me to a first-time visit to the Art and Artifacts Division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Assistant Curator Tammi Lawson guided me through a memorable experience with a closer look at her artwork. As a young girl in the early twentieth century, Savage began shaping ducks out of red clay found in the backyard of her home in Green Cove Springs, Florida. Savage’s work gained local attention when she entered and won a prize at a local county fair, which led to community support for further study. In 1921, she moved to Harlem after studying at State Normal College for Colored Students (now Florida A & M University). Savage later completed a four-year program in sculpture in three years at Cooper Union. She also studied abroad in France and traveled across Europe where she completed a significant amount of her sculpture. Friend Romare Bearden once said, “Augusta Savage lived for her work…gradually [she] realized that the black artist was caught in the economic plight of African Americans as a whole and that she could not escape their struggles.”
In 1931, Savage returned to Harlem and opened the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts—a fine arts training ground for over 1,500 students including many well-known Harlem Renaissance artists such as Charles Alston, Ernest Crichlow, Norman Lewis, Morgan Smith and Marvin Smith, Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence. Columbia psychologist Kenneth Clark and for a short while Ralph Ellison also spent time in Savage’s studio before going downtown to study with Richmond Barthé in Greenwich Village. Their collaborative creative force broke down barriers in Harlem and beyond, and continues to highlight the art and culture of black life today.
In 1934, Savage became the director of the newly established Harlem Community Art Center, after she was commissioned by the 1939 World’s Fair. Around that time she created “The Harp” as a series, but it was destroyed during the cleanup after the fair. In the Photographs and Prints Division at the Schomburg, there is also a collection of photographs from Morgan Smith and Marvin Smith that features Augusta Savage at work in her studio.
Savage’s art was often in response to the fight against racism. She used a variety of methods, shaping clay and plaster, casting bronze, and later years, carving marble and wood. In the Augusta Savage collection, there are works that illustrate themes such as nineteenth-century romanticism and African and Greek culture. As a trained portraitist, her busts include Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson and Gwendolyn Bennett. In the spring of 1929 she created “Gamin,” a sculpture that graced the cover of the September 1929 issue of Opportunity magazine.
The Schomburg’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division also houses a number of historical documents chronicling her life story and creative work. Icons like Augusta Savage offer frameworks for newer artists who come after them. During her time, Savage created and shaped institutions while mentoring Harlem Renaissance artists, scholars, leaders and community residents.