Augusta SavageJul 24th, 2014 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment, Education, Painting & Sculpture, Social Sciences
1892-1962 Augusta Savage battled discrimination and financial hardships as an acclaimed sculptor and teacher, and went on to become a key mentor and supporter of numerous black artists who followed in her footsteps.
An Independent Woman
Savage was born Augusta Christine Fells on February 29, 1892, in Green Cove Springs, Florida. As one of 13 children in a poor family, Savage spent many hours playing in the mud outside her Florida home, learning to model figures out of the red earth. Although she showed exceptional talent at a young age, Savage’s lather, a Methodist minister, discouraged his daughter’s growing passion.
In 1907, the family moved to West Palm Beach. Despite her lather’s objections, Savage entered a group of figures into a competition at a local county lair and won a prize. This small recognition launched her art career. Soon, Savage was teaching sculpture classes at the local high school and selling small pieces to affluent members of the community. Also in 1907, at age 15, she married John T. Moore and gave birth to a daughter, Irene, the following year. Unfortunately, Moore died soon after the birth of his daughter.
Widowed at an early age, Savage became even more determined to pursue a career in art. In 1915, she left her family and moved to Jacksonville with the intention of making a living as a sculptor. She soon married again, this time to James Savage, a local carpenter. Savage soon learned that the south would not support a black artist, and simultaneously became increasingly unhappy in her second marriage. She left her husband and moved to New York City in 1921, leaving her daughter in the care of her parents.
Savage arrived in New York with only five dollars in her pocket. However, she quickly found a job and an apartment, and registered for classes at Cooper Union. The art school immediately recognized Savage’s potential and offered her a small scholarship. In addition, she befriended the head librarian at the public library where she spent many hours pouring over volumes of art history. When the librarian discovered her difficult financial situation, she arranged for Savage to receive a commission for a portrait bust of WE.B. Du Bois. This was the first of many small commissions that Savage completed over the next few years. Slowly, she began to establish herself as an artist and earn the respect of the growing community of African American artists taking up residence in Harlem.
Molding a Life of Adversity
In 1923, Savage experienced overt racism as an artist for the first time. She applied for a position in an elite summer program for young women sculptors in Fontainbleau, France, but was rejected. It soon
became apparent that she had been turned away because several other American participants had refused to travel with a black woman. Savage was outraged. She wrote letters to local newspapers and appealed to the Ethical Culture Society. Although the case attracted a great deal of press, the original decision was upheld and Savage was left bitter and dejected.
This rejection was the first of several unhappy events in Savage’s life. In 1923, she married for a third time, to Robert Poston, an activist and colleague of Marcus Garvey. Although the match was a happy one, Poston died suddenly on a boat returning from Africa five months after their wedding. Widowed once more, Savage found herself struggling to support both her aging parents and daughter who had moved from Florida to New York to be near her. She realized that she could no longer feed her family on the money she made from commissions alone. Forced to take a job in a local laundry, Savage continued to work on her art at night.
Around 1930, Savage’s luck began to change. One of her sculptures, Gamin, was pictured on the cover of a New York magazine. The image brought Savage to the attention of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which awarded her a scholarship to study in Italy. Other artists in her Harlem community came together to raise additional funds to support her travel to Europe. The two years that Savage spent in Rome proved to be the most productive of her career. Her work was praised by European critics and she participated in numerous important exhibitions.
When Savage returned from Europe in late 1931, the Great Depression had gripped America and no one was commissioning or purchasing art. She turned to teaching as a means of survival, but found great joy in her new vocation. She established the Savage Studio of Art and Crafts in Harlem, offering classes for both children and adults throughout the 1930s. Savage became known as a teacher who was both inspirational and demanding, and had as her students many of Harlem’s rising artists including Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight.
Savage took on the position of director of the Harlem Community Art Center in 1937, which offered art classes and housed various community organizations. In 1939, she opened her own gallery, The Salon of Contemporary Negro Art, in order to more directly assist emerging African American artists. While struggling to get the gallery off the ground, she also completed her final public commission. Four artists had been asked to make pieces for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and Savage was the only woman in the group. Her piece, Lift Every Voice and Sing, depicted a harp on which the strings were replaced with singing children. Although the piece drew large crowds at the Fair, like many of Savage’s other works, it was never cast in bronze and the original plaster sculpture was eventually destroyed.
Exhausted and worn down from her teaching and community activism, Savage left Harlem in the 1940s for a small farm in upstate New York. She eventually withdrew from the art world entirely, choosing to spend her time working on small sculptures and holding art classes for local children. She never exhibited her work again, but continued to teach until her death from cancer on March 26, 1962.