365 Days of Art: Leap Year Bonus, February 29 – Augusta Savage Born

August Savage, circa 1938, with some of her sculptures.

February 29, 1892

Augusta Savage (born as Augusta Fells) was born, as she said, “at the dark of the moon”.

She was an African-American sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was influential as a sculptor, teacher, and advocate for equal rights, though, to her great disappointment, her political activism came to overshadow her artistic career.

Augusta made clay figures as a child, but her father would beat her when he found her sculptures. Persevering and winning over her dad, she became a star student and prize winner, even winning a scholarship for room and board at Cooper Union in NYC (tuition was already free for all students).

In 1923 Savage applied for a summer art program sponsored by the French government, but was rejected due to her race. This incident received international attention (and will be featured in this blog later in the year). It set the tone for seeing her as a political advocate first, and an artist second, though she continued to make work.

Savage worked in Manhattan steam laundries to support herself and her family, while sculpting, including a commission for a bust of W. E. B. Du Bois for the Harlem Library.

She continued to win awards, and in 1934 was the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She opened her Harlem studio as a community classroom for the arts; her students included the future nationally known artists Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Gwendolyn Knight. Her school evolved into the Harlem Community Art Center, and 1500 people participated in her workshops. Unfortunately, Savage struggled with WPA (Works Progress Administration) officials who objected to her having a leadership role in this publicly-funded school. Whether that was due to her gender or her race, I don’t know.

Savage received a commission from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, creating a 16-foot tall plaster sculpture that was the fair’s most popular and most-photographed work. Small metal souvenir copies as well as postcard reproductions were sold. Unfortunately, Savage couldn’t afford to cast it in bronze, or to move and store it, so it was destroyed at the close of the fair along with the other temporary installations.

She participated in other fairs, but often her work wasn’t returned to her. It’s thought this resulted from a combination of her lack of funds–not having the money for bronze, she chose less sturdy materials which didn’t ship well; and she often couldn’t afford to pay for return shipping at all, meaning some works were abandoned–as well as a lack of care on the part of the organizers.

Savage opened a Harlem gallery which quickly closed due to finances. Deeply depressed by her financial and political struggles, Augusta moved to a rural farm in upstate New York, which has since been listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Augusta Savage House and Studio. She worked on a farm, and made little or no effort to talk about or create art for the rest of her life.

One of her works, a bust titled Gamin, is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Fun Fact: Another of Augusta’s students was Kenneth B. Clark, whose later sociological research contributed to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled school segregation unconstitutional.