“I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.” – Augusta Savage
It’s Women’s History Month and during this year’s Harlem Renaissance Centennial, Harlem One Stop is pleased to present a series on the unsung heroes/the midwives of the Harlem Renaissance – the women who “birthed”, guided and influenced the cultural movement. Often, women’s contributions take a backseat to contributions of male counterparts, and women are largely remembered by history in a supporting role. However, women not only played a supporting role, but led much of the movement within their respective spheres, contributing prolifically while simultaneously confronting inequality on multiple fronts. One such figure during the Harlem Renaissance was Augusta Savage, a sculptor, organizer and educator, with a lasting, though threatened legacy to this day.
Augusta Savage was born February 29, 1892 to a Methodist minister and his wife in Green Cove Springs, Florida. Savage moved to New York City in 1923 to attend Cooper Union for a four-year program, which she finished in three years. Savage applied to a summer program to study in France and though she was more than qualified to be admitted, she was rejected because of her race. This decision received a great deal of press on either side of the Atlantic, creating a controversy, and was one of many fights against inequality Savage would endure in her life.
Savage went on to high profile commissioned works, sculpting busts of W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, as well as a commission for “The Harp” (below) which was inspired by “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, and “Gamin” (pictured to the left), which is currently located housed at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Through pooled funding and grants, Savage was eventually able to study in Europe, establishing her own technique and methods in Paris.
Aside from her body of work, Savage’s legacy as an educator, supporter, and advocate for African American artists are formidable accomplishments in her storied life. In 1934, she established the Uptown Art Laboratory on 321 West 136th Street, which aimed to bring out creative abilities of Harlem children, aiding emotional and mental development. Uptown Art Laboratory gave way to the Harlem Arts Guild, which was co-founded by Savage, with the credo, “We, the artists of Harlem, being aware of the need to act collectively in the solution of the cultural, economic, social and professional problems that confront us, do hereby constitute ourselves an organization that shall be known as the Harlem Artist Guild,” the guild effectively organized and advocated for federal commissions for black artists and community art programs. The guild led to the establishment the Work Progress Administration (WPA) Harlem Community Center. Savage’s students included Jacob Lawrence, Robert Blackburn, and Norman Lewis, whose cohorts became influential contemporary artists in their own right.
However influential Savage was in the art world and for championing Harlem artists, remnants of her legacy are threatened by the ever-changing tides of New York City/Harlem real estate. Savage’s former residence at 321 West 136th Street, which became known as the Uptown Art Laboratory, then the Harlem Arts Guild, is to be torn down imminently in order to make room for a new, multi-million dollar townhouse. Further, Savage was unable to afford copper or more durable materials for most of her sculptures and worked mostly in clay caster; the majority of her work are disappearing and eroding with time.
From May 3 – July 28, New York Historical Society will host the exhibition, “Augusta Savage – Renaissance Woman”, which explores Savage’s lasting legacy as an arts educator, activist, artist, and Harlem Renaissance leader who catalyzed social change. It is important to keep her legacy alive, if not in caster mold, then in the enduring legacy of her works, art and efforts to promote black artists during the Harlem Renaissance, through the Great Depression, and beyond. More information on the exhibition can be found here: https://www.harlemonestop.com/event/27308/exhibition-augusta-savage-renaissance-woman