Augusta Savage

By Bailie Staton

The 16-foot-high sculpture amazed visitors to the 1939 World’s Fair that year in the Flushing Meadows area of New York City.

It commemorated the contributions of black music to America and resembled a giant harp.  Standing as the harp’s strings were 12 black figures standing at graduated heights on the sounding board, which was formed as the hand and arm of God.Augusta3

The Harp was certainly black sculptor Augusta Savage’s most monumental work.  It also represented the artistic and musical genius that had emanated from Northeast Florida in the early 20th century.

For not only was Savage born in Green Cove Springs in 1892, she relied upon the famous black anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” penned by Jacksonville’s Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson, as her inspiration for The Harp.

“Some people call it The Harp, some people call it The Voice and some just call it ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,’” said Eugene Francis with the Friends of Augusta Savage Arts and Community Center. Its intent was to symbolize and commemorate the contributions of black musicians.

Sadly, after the fair the plaster-cast sculpture was destroyed due to a lack of funds to cast it in bronze.

Although The Harp was Savage’s last major commissioned work, her previous work as a sculptor and member of the New York artistic scene have cast her as a luminary among the 20th century artists.

“She was one of the major players under the New Negro movement just prior to the Harlem Renaissance,” Francis said.

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Augusta Savage

Savage grew up in a large family and entertained herself by playing with clay she found in her hometown. The young girl soon fell in love with sculpting clay, much to the dismay of her minister father and the larger art world, which did not recognize her talent early on because of her race.

Little did her parents know that their daughter would combat poverty, racism and sexual discrimination to become one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1907, 15-year-old Savage married her first husband, John T. Moore, and had her  only child, Irene, at just 16 years old. The marriage didn’t last long though as Moore died a few years later.

In 1915, Savage and her daughter moved to West Palm Beach where Savage met her second husband, James Savage. With a new husband and a new good source of clay, Savage blossomed in West Palm Beach.

She created a group of sculptures that she entered into the annual South Florida Fair, they were well received, winning her the favor of the fair’s superintendent, George Graham Curie, who was very supportive of her work. He even encouraged her to go study art, despite the racial discrimination dividing the country.

In the early 1920s, Savage divorced her husband and moved to Jacksonville.  She planned to create sculptures of famous black residents by commission between the years of 1920 and 1921, but the plan did not succeed.

She then decided to take a new route at the end of 1921. Dropping her daughter off at her parent’s two-story house on Middleburg Avenue in Green Cove Springs, she headed for New York City.Augusta5

When she arrived, she enrolled at the tuition-free school of Cooper Union to study sculpture.

School faculty were amazed at her talent and waived tuition for some of her courses. The school also presented her with a scholarship to help with living expenses.

“She was a woman, which was already difficult as an artist. On top of that she was black, that’s why she became so successful. She defeated the odds,” said Imani Phillips, archival assistant at the Jacksonville Historical Society.

Average students at Cooper Union graduated in four years, however, the quick-learning and talented Savage graduated in three.

In 1923, Savage married her last husband, Robert Lincoln Poston, who later died the following year.

In the same year she married Poston, she decided to apply for a summer art program just outside of Paris called Fontainebleu.

One hundred artists were invited to study there, but once her application was submitted, the board rejected her because of her race.

“African-American artists just they allowed into most art schools,” Phillips said. “Their work just wasn’t considered professional, so it was just rejected. And public museums and art studios didn’t want to show African-American art.”

Enraged, Savage brought the subject to the press during the time of intense segregation and was on the front headlines of many papers. Despite the publicity, the decision remained unchanged.

However, an American sculptor and a member of the Fontainebleu’s admissions committee, Herman A. MacNeil, attempted to make amends and invited Savage to come work with him at his Long Island studio.

Once back in New York, Savage’s star began to rise.  She made a name for herself by sculpting famous people including W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Both of these works were hailed in the art world for their power and dynamism.

In 1929, a sculpture that had a big impact in the art world was of her nephew, Ellis Ford, titled Gamin.

On the basis of these notable works she received the Julius Rosenwald fellowship that finally allowed her to study in Paris from 1929 to 1931.

Augusta3Once she returned to New York, the Great Depression hit. Because little art was being bought or sold, Savage began teaching and in 1932 and Savage founded the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem.

In 1934, Savage became the first black person elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.  Four years later the Harlem Community center was built and funded by the Works Progress Administration, and Savage was elected to become its first director.

During this time in history, blacks were not given a lot of options for their careers, and being named director was a monumental achievement for Savage, for artists and women of color.

“They just felt that they would just be taken seriously as artist,” Phillips said. “For the time period, most blacks weren’t allowed into careers outside of labor or service industry. To be an artist was a really big deal.”

In 1939, Savage returned to Jacksonville to visit Ninah Cummer, the daughter in law of Wellington Cummer, patriarch of well-known Jacksonville’s Cummer family.  Cummer had kept her family’s legacy alive by building The Cummer Museum of Arts and Garden’s on top of the Cummer’s original home in 1961.

Savage presented Cummer with The Diving Boy as a gift the following year and it was placed at the edge of a reflecting pond in the backyard of the Cummer Museum’s Italian garden.

After Savage left her job at the Community Center to work on The Harp, when she returned her job was no longer available. From there, Savage struggled to re-establish herself in the art world.

“For artists after you have a successful piece, people hold you to those standards,” Phillips explained. “We’re never going to know why she didn’t continue making art as extravagant as The Harp, but she certainly left her mark on the art world.”

In 1945, Savage left the big city to move to a farm in Saugerties, N.Y.  The rest of her life was spent quietly and she only dabbled in art as a hobby.

When she became ill with cancer, Savage moved back to New York City to be with her daughter and family. She died on March 26, 1962, in New York.