The most important black woman sculptor of the 20th century deserves more recognition
Augusta Savage started sculpting as a child in the 1900s using what she could get her hands on: the clay that was part of the natural landscape in her hometown of Green Cove Springs, Florida. Eventually her talents took her far from the clay pits of the South. She joined the burgeoning arts scene of the Harlem Renaissance when her talents led her to New York.
Her work was lauded, and she was consistently admired by contemporary black artists, but her renown was transient. And much of her work has been lost, since she could mostly afford to cast only in plaster.
Like other key figures of the 1920s such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, Savage skillfully challenged negative images and stereotypical depictions of black people. One of her largest commissions, for instance, were sculptures for the World’s Fair of 1939, inspired by “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often described as the black national anthem. “The Harp,” another work in the commission, depicted black singers as the ascending strings of that instrument. Regrettably, both pieces were destroyed when the fairgrounds were torn down.
Born in 1892, Savage would often sculpt clay into small figures, much to the chagrin of her father, a minister who believed that artistic expression was sinful. In 1921, she moved to Harlem, where she enrolled at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. A gifted student, Savage completed the four-year program in only three and quickly embarked on a career in sculpting. During the early to mid-1920s, she was commissioned to create several sculptures, including a bust of NAACP leader W.E.B. Du Boisand charismatic black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey — two key black leaders of the period who were often at odds with each other.
Both pieces were well received, especially in black circles, but the racial climate at the time hampered wider recognition of her work. Savage won a prestigious scholarship at a summer arts program at the Fontainebleau School of the Fine Arts outside of Paris in 1923, for instance, but the offer was withdrawn when the school discovered that she was black. Despite her efforts — she filed a complaint with the Ethical Culture Committee — and public outcry from several well-known black leaders at the time, the organizers upheld the decision.
Two years after being rejected from the summer arts program at Fontainebleau, she received a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, Italy. Unable to raise the funds for travel and living expenses, Savage chose not to accept it. Yet, in some ways, the scholarship itself functioned as validation for her work and evidence of her increasing global visibility and influence in the profession.
In 1929, though, Savage did get to Paris as part of a prestigious fellowshipshe won for one of her famous pieces — “Gamin,” a life size bronze bust depicting a young black boy. The sculpture graced the cover of Opportunity, the official magazine of the National Urban League. While in Paris, Savage exhibited her work at several galleries and collaborated with other black men and women residing there, including poets Claude McKay and Countee Cullen, and fellow sculptor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet.
Her sculptures caught the attention of Martiniquan writer Paulette Nardal, who later included a picture of “Gamin” in a 1930 article on Savage’s life and work. Describing Savage as a self-made woman, Nardal went on to highlight Savage’s extraordinary talent as a sculptor as well as her commitment to mentoring young black artists. When she returned to Harlem in the early 1930s, Savage focused on teaching and founded her own art school in Harlem — Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts. Years later, she opened up a gallery, providing a space (though short-lived) to feature the work of black artists from across the country and the globe.
When she passed away in 1962, Savage was remembered by many as a gifted sculpture and passionate activist who stood up in the face of injustice. Much like her predecessor Edmonia Lewis—the 19th century African American sculptor who has been featured in a Google doodle in honor of black history month—Savage used the craft of sculpting as a vehicle for challenging racial discrimination. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture did stage an exhibit featuring nineteen of her pieces in 1988, but few of her sculptures remain. Even so, Savage remains arguably the most influential black woman sculptor of the 20th century. Her efforts no doubt helped to pave the way for many black women sculptors to follow.