The Legendary Augusta Savage
Two summers back, this newspaper’s pages were riddled with vituperative letters concerning a road sign that had been erected four years earlier to honor a Harlem Renaissance sculptor who had resided obscurely in Saugerties from 1945 to 1962. State Comptroller H. Clark McCall had come to town on April 5, 2000, to dedicate Augusta Savage Road, a replacement for Niger Road, from whose name one “g” had been removed half a century earlier in a half-baked civic gesture.
“To heal old wounds is to rid ourselves of a symbol that harkens back to those racist days,” McCall said. “She was a fierce opponent of racism. Her life is an inspiration to us all ... [and] by replacing this hateful name, we send a hopeful signal to the children passing this way.” That few children would pass this dead-end road by the Winston Farm, one on which Savage, by the way, had never lived, troubled some. That Saugerties had not thought to honor her previously, and was now using her to whitewash a bothersome bit of its history, disturbed others.
Lost in the debate were Augusta Savage and her sculpture, but perhaps that should not have been surprising. By coming to Saugerties she had sought to disappear from the art scene she had helped to construct, and she may even have had a hand in the destruction of most of her documented work. Turning away from a career in ruin and a biography encased in myth, in her last years she managed to reconnect with her real past.
Born Augusta Christine Fells in Green Cove Springs, Florida, on February 29, 1892, she was the seventh of fourteen children of Cornelia and Edward Fells, both of whom had been born into slavery some thirty years earlier. Her mother was a washerwoman and her father was a housepainter and fundamentalist preacher who frowned upon graven images. “My father licked me four or five times a week,” Savage once recalled, “and almost whipped all the art out of me.”
In 1908 Gussie, as she was known then, gave birth to a daughter, Irene. She is said to have married a man named John T. Moore the year before, who is said to have died sometime before her marriage to James Savage in or around 1915, when the Fell family relocated to West Palm Beach. In the 1920 census Augusta resides at 916 Banyan Street and works as a laundress for a private family; James works as a chauffeur; and 12-year-old Irene Moore lives with them. Two houses down the street, at Number 912, live Augusta’s mother and five siblings.
One of the many fanciful stories attaching to Augusta Savage’s development as a sculptor has her ceasing to craft figurines from the time she left Green Cove Springs around 1915 because of the unavailability of clay in her new county. Yet in 1919 a local potter (!) is said to have given her 25 pounds of clay from which she created clay ducks and chickens that won a prize in the West Palm Beach County Fair. With a letter of recommendation from the fair superintendent to New York sculptor Solon Borglum (brother of Gutzon of Mt. Rushmore fame), in late 1920 or early 1921 she left her husband, deposited her daughter with her mother and, with $4.60 in her purse, headed to New York City.
Admitted to tuition-free Cooper Union at Borglum’s behest, Savage cleaned houses and took in laundry to support herself. All the same, she was nearly compelled to drop out of the program in 1923, until admirers arranged commissions for her to create busts of W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. Being in the presence of these charismatic champions of the race influenced her philosophy profoundly.
The event that had the greatest impact on Augusta Savage’s art also took place in that year. Receiving a scholarship to attend a summer art school in France, she successfully raised funds for the passage. However, as the New York Times reported on April 24, “Augusta Savage, a negress 23 years old, of 228 West 138th Street, who is studying sculpture at Cooper Institute, has been refused permission to attend the Fontainbleau School of Fine Arts in France by a committee of American painters, sculptors and architects.... Ernest Peiexotto, who had charge of the girl’s application as a member of the committee, admitted that refusal was based on the ground that she is a negress and that a number of Southern girls intended sailing on the same ship she had chosen, to begin art studies at the same academy.”
This blatant discrimination raised a furor that went all the way to President Harding. Although her rejection stood, Savage, 31 years old rather than the 23 to which she admitted, had won sympathy as struggling artist and even a measure of fame as a black nationalist. She married Robert T. Lincoln Poston, a newspaper editor and journalist who contributed to Negro World, the newspaper of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. He perished at sea in 1924 while returning from a UNIA mission to Liberia.
Continuing to struggle financially, with only occasional commissions, Savage hung on long enough to make her mark with a small jaunty statue of her nephew, Ellis Ford, which she called “Gamin.” This won her an $1800 fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that enabled her, in 1929-32, to study in France and travel in Germany and Belgium.
Returning to New York, she established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts at 163 West 143rd Street. Some of the brightest aspiring young artists, such as Ernest Crichlow, Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence, Morgan and Marvin Jones, William Artis, and Norman Lewis, came under her tutelage or at least shelter. And in 1934 she became the first of her race to gain admittance into the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Her influence as a cultural icon was increasing in both black and white circles, but her relevance as an African American artist was already past its peak, if indeed it ever had one.
Augusta Savage had struggled to gain the respect of an art community dominated by white males, and despite her gift for black physiognomy, her sculptural precepts were Eurocentric. Her students, on the other hand, were largely in tune with the proposal by Howard University’s Alain Locke that African Americans should pay attention to the use by several European modernists — notably Picasso and Matisse — of African figural conventions in the development of 20th-century art forms.
What at the time appeared to be the crowning achievement of her life as an artist commenced in 1937, when she was appointed the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center and was commissioned by the New York World’s Fair of 1939 to create a sculpture symbolizing the musical contributions of African Americans. Inspired by the lyrics of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” she took a leave of absence from her newly won job and spent nearly two years on a 16-foot-tall plaster harp, lacquered to resemble black basalt, that was exhibited in the court of the Contemporary Arts Building. The kitschy sculpture amasses twelve black singers in graduated heights with crania in a disquieting diminuendo. The sounding board was formed by the hand and arm of God, and a kneeling man holding sheet music represented the foot pedal. Fairgoers bought pot-metal reproductions of the statue, cast from the original maquette, prized by collectors today.
In the spring of 1939 her career seemed at its zenith. She was given a one-woman show for 15 of her sculptures at the Argent Galleries in New York. But then doors began to close all around her. Upon returning to the Harlem Community Art Center, Savage learned that her “temporary” replacement, Gwendolyn Bennett, was not disposed to relinquish her post. Striking out on her own, she opened an entrepreneurial venture, the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art in Harlem. It closed weeks later for lack of funding. No funds were available to cast “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” nor were there any facilities to store it. After the fair closed it was demolished. In 1940 or ’41 many of the plaster works that had been displayed at the Argent Galleries were shipped to a Midwestern art show, and have not been seen since; Savage may, it is speculated, have destroyed them upon their return.
In 1941, in a turn previously unreported, she divorced James Savage, a technicality she had neglected to pursue before marrying her “third” husband, Robert T.L. Poston. By 1945 it was clear that the 53-year-old sculptor was a legend without a lifeline. She removed to a former chicken shack in West Saugerties, on Old Route 32, and resolved that all of her friends would now become strangers. Savage is said to have turned to writing, though none of her work was published, and occasionally took on young students for art instruction. She ceased to sculpt in a serious way.
But then a former stranger, her daughter, now Mrs. Irene Allen, returned into her life, befriending and financially supporting her until her death from cancer on March 26, 1962 at Abraham Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx.
What is Augusta Savage’s legacy? That she was strong for her race. That she was a champion of and inspiration to a generation of artists who have not forgotten their debt. And that she was born too soon, or possibly too late, to write her name with fire in the sky: she is a major figure but a minor talent. Next week we will examine an earlier and greater black female sculptor, Edmonia Lewis, with whom Augusta Savage is spiritually linked.