Augusta Savage: Continuing a legacy

Augusta Savage’s classical sculpture humanised the Black experience during the prevalent Harlem Renaissance era.

“Augusta is a sculptress fine,
A poetess as well;
Her coal black hair and eyes that shine
A soulful story tell”— George Graham Currie’s Recreated 

Back in 2016, the previous leap year, I began the conceptual Happy Birthday Augusta Savage, which came out of countless hours spent at the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture. The Centre houses a majority of Savage’s sculpture and all personal papers. Much of Savage’s destroyed work only exists as archival footage in two long boxes; inside were articles and photographs, typewritten pages of stories and poems, unedited, unpublished, yellowing. Hours were spent typing out her life story in my own words, cutting them out, arranging the timeline chronologically held together by tiny brown and beige clothespins on Pan-African colored ribbon—red, green, and black. The installation’s foundation rested heavily on sharing gathered information to those unfamiliar. Later, she would appear as a guest eating donuts with Frida Kahlo in an oil painting and a life story crayon lithograph… 

Augusta Savage’s classical sculpture humanised the Black experience during the prevalent Harlem Renaissance era. She remains an inspiring figure to generations of artists, curators, scholars, and historians. Along with many Black artists illustrating the multifaceted complexities of Black narrative, Savage’s tremendous contributions are not taught, only discovered. Her subjects—either loved ones or prominent intellectual figures like W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, and Arthur Schomburg— were tenderly rendered through the physical act of laborious sculpting. By offering a space to create and later launching a short lived art gallery, Savage became the art world Harriet Tubman, ushering upcoming artists into this underground territory that didn’t want to include them. 

L: Gwendolyn Knight, bronze, 1930, recast 2001, from Renaissance Woman exhibit at the New York Historical Society 
R: Gamin, painted plaster, 1929, from Renaissance Woman exhibit at the New York Historical Society.
Courtesy Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, 1935-1942. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Born February 29, 1892, Augusta Christine Fells was raised in a strict, religious household. Her Methodist father often tried abusing the art out of her. Meanwhile, that did not stop her fascination with clay. She attended Cooper Union, excelling beyond expectations, maturing as an advanced sculptress capturing the figure in clay, bronze, plaster, and even marble with a traditional academic sensibility. Yet racial disparity kept her in terrible predicaments. For instance, she was granted an opportunity to study in Italy, but the opportunity was cruelly snatched away due to her race. Still, she pressed onward, eventually acquiring a Rosenwald Fellowship to study abroad for several years, even showing at the prestigious Paris Salon. When Savage returned, she opened up her small apartment to young artists around her community, encouraging their burgeoning creativity. She retired from teaching and advocating for Black artists, moving away to Saugerties, New York, living in complete obscurity. 

“And down my time scarred cheek there crept a tear,
For those who sleep beneath the ocean’s foam,
And then a sigh for other hearts so dear,
That rest so gently ‘neath the sand of home.”
From The Old Homestead by Augusta Savage, written in 1922 

Like Savage, my current work places important Black figures into my multidisciplinary practice. With a recently acquired grant, I am compiling some thirty-two past and present Black women writers having soirées together— large scale figurative drawings and paintings, their books incorporated as installation. The show, set to open in October for Art and Humanities Month, will be held at the Dayton Metro Library main gallery in Dayton, Ohio. The idea started from my Black Women Writers A-Z sketches and expanded to this notion of get-togethers between those living and the ghosts of the past whose words and books we still carry. 

Happy Birthday Augusta Savage, typewritten text on paper, copyrighted copies, typewriter, red balloons, Pan African ribbon, and copies of Savage’s work via Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture, photographed by Janyce Denise Glasper, February 29, 2016.

In addition to visual art, writing is equally important. I write fiction, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction essays. While a contributing writer for the artblog based in Philadelphia, I also host Black Women Make Art, a blog highlighting visual artists operating in various parts of the globe. My undergraduate art history courses were not inclusive and the absence was always painfully felt. For years, a hunger brewed to find others, to validate this artistic path. Thus, this cyber teaching site came out of the need to show visibility and educate myself and others on the other side of the art world, what the cannon still lacks. 

Making litho print, April 2018.

Augusta Savage was a pioneer or Renaissance Woman as Dr. Jeffreen Hayes puts her (curator of the first traveling exhibit of Savage’s in a long while). The beauty of her sculpture and writings  truly transcended down to the way she lived her life— with humble grace and human compassion. That is the kind of legacy most artists strive to have. 

Words: Janyce Denise Glasper

Janyce’s Twitter can be found here and her Instagram here.

About the Author

Janyce Denise Glasper is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, and independent scholar. She has a BFA in drawing from the Art Academy of Cincinnati and post baccalaureate and MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She currently lives and works in Dayton, Ohio and blogs at AfroVeganChick, femfilmrogues, and Black Women Make Art.