By Jann Haynes Gilmore, PhD, AWA Board Member
Each of these women sculptors struggled with poverty and were subjected to racial discrimination their entire careers. All were associated with the Harlem Renaissance in New York City in the early 1920s. The paucity of scholarly research on each of them, mostly contemporaries, confirms the obscurity of their cultural contributions to their time and place.
Augusta Savage (1892-1962)
Augusta Savage is the best known and is now considered “…one of the most influential African American artists of the 1930s.”1 She was born in Green Cove, FL, near Jacksonville, number 7 of 14 children. At an early age, she began to mold clay found in a nearby riverbed, against her father’s staunch Methodist religion. Savage attended local schools, married in 1907, had a daughter, and soon became a widow. She and her parents moved to West Palm Beach in 1915, following the tourist trade down the east coast of Florida. A second marriage soon ended in divorce. Encouraged to enter a clay molding county fair competition, Savage’s work won a $25 prize and she began to create busts of well-known community members. Her teachers encouraged her to attend Florida A & M University but she found classwork difficult and returned home. Taking a next big step, she moved to New York to study sculpture in 1920, where she found employment in a Chinese laundry.
She consulted Solon Borglum, brother of sculptor Gutzon Borglum – who was carving Mt. Rushmore – and he referred her to the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a free school established in 1859 where she studied for four years. 2 In 1923, she applied to the Fontainebleau Summer Art School outside Paris, an institution that invited 100 young American women to study art disciplines under the aegis of the French government. The first African American to apply, Savage had backing from President Warren Harding and Franz Boas, a noted Chicago anthropologist. After being accepted at the school, the board rescinded her invitation because she was black; this decision became a national cause celebre. Savage was accused of “trying to pass as White.”3
Savage rebounded by continuing her work and advocacy for all African American artists. She associated with the 135th Street Library in Harlem that today is known as the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. There, other young African American creatives – authors, musicians, and artists – gathered and formed a collective known today as the Harlem Renaissance. These creatives had moved north seeking refuge from Jim Crow laws and began to promote intellectual, social, and artistic freedoms for what became the “New Negro Movement.” Jazz became a passion, led by the likes of Eubie Blake, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, and Duke Ellington. Writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes took the literary stage, and thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke encouraged their Harlem associates to look to their African roots for expression of Negro advancement.
In this highly charged atmosphere, Augusta Savage was one of the founders of The Harlem Artists Guild that met at the 135th Library in 1935 and promoted education for young talent as a way out of poverty, racism and unemployment. Savage’s reputation grew when she sculpted busts of many well-known figures, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass. She married again, successfully, but her journalist husband died within a few years. Savage had received a scholarship to attend the American Academy in Rome in 1925 but could not afford the expenses. Four years later, she was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to finally study sculpture in Europe. 4 Savage met Elizabeth Prophet, another African American sculptor during two years of study in Paris, and also traveled throughout Europe. When she returned home in 1932, she founded her own school in Harlem known as the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts.
The Great Depression abruptly interrupted progressive causes in the early 1930s, but New York state had a strong Federal Arts Project (FAP) sponsored by the government’s New Deal initiatives under Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). With funds from its visual arts program, Augusta Savage established the Harlem Community Art Center in the basement of the 135th Library. This Center became the gathering place for Harlem Renaissance figures. Savage and others (Selma Burke) taught free art instruction to youth, literary lectures were held, and talented young artists emerged out of this learning experience, including Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight. 5 Savage also became the first African American elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, established in 1889, to counter women’s discrimination in predominantly male art salons.
In 1939 Savage was invited to create a major sculpture for the New York World’s Fair. Paid $1,800 annually for two years to create the sculpture, it was necessary for Savage to take a leave of absence from the Harlem Community Art Center. She chose as her theme “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a spiritual written by her friend James Weldon Johnson, a civil rights activist. Titled “The Harp,” the sculpture featured a 16’ harp with strings, with a frieze of black youth singing as a metaphor for the gift of African American music. Receiving wide acclaim, this work was tragically bulldozed when the temporal fair closed. Savage expected to return to her teaching at the Harlem Community Arts Center after the fair, but shockingly learned that her substitute, Gwendolyn Bennett, had permanently replaced her. This sudden financial reversal effectively ended her career. She soon established the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art, but it failed after three months. The Argent Gallery gave her a solo show but she sold no works. She retired from the art scene angry, hurt, and underappreciated by the contemporary art world.
In 1945 she left New York City, moving upstate to Saugerties, NY, where she lived in a house, initially with no running water, and taught neighborhood children to mold clay found nearby, harkening back to her Florida childhood. She died in 1962 at age 70 and was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, NY.
Savage was often a victim of severe depression during her tumultuous life and career, but acknowledged late in life that she had remained true to her sculptural mission to capture the African American culture of her people. She had competed with more successful African American contemporaries who had chosen mainstream subject matter preferred by white art collectors. Savage reflected: “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talents I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.” 6
Saugerties, NY, has recognized its famous resident by listing her residence on the National Register of Historic Places and has named a street for her. In 1988 Harlem’s Schomberg Center (formerly the 135th St. Library) honored her and received significant Savage artworks from her daughter. 7
Selma Hortense Burke (1900-1995)
Burke was one of 10 children born in Mooresville, NC, the daughter of a traveling minister who also worked as a railroad cook. Like Savage, Burke began modeling clay while attending segregated public schools, and was encouraged by her grandmother, a painter. She remarked that “I shaped my destiny early with the clay of North Carolina rivers. I loved to make whitewash for my mother, and was excited at the imprints of the clay and the malleability of the material.”8 Education was a high priority in her family and she attended school in Washington, DC; then graduated from Winston-Salem State University, formerly an industrial school. Burke also received a nursing degree in 1924 before settling in Harlem, NY, where she worked as a private nurse. She became involved with Claude McKay, a Harlem Renaissance writer, who introduced her to all the Harlem Renaissance notables. 9 Burke began to teach at the Harlem Community Arts Center under the mentorship of Augusta Savage. Through the FAP, she created a bust of Booker T. Washington.
In 1933-1934 Burke received a Rosenwald Fellowship to study sculpture and travel in Europe, first in Vienna, and under a second Fellowship in Paris, where she studied with Aristide Maillol, a French sculptor who is known for his figurative works; notably the female form. Burke also met Henri Matisse, who encouraged her to add size and volume to her work.
Back in NYC she joined the Navy during World War II, one of the first African American women to do so, and drove a truck in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At the same time, she won a scholarship and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University. She, too, started her own school in 1946, the Selma Burke School of Sculpture, and later opened a similar school in Pittsburgh, PA. In 1949, Burke married well-known architect and city planner Herman Kobbe, a former lieutenant governor candidate in NY. The couple moved to New Hope, PA, an art community. 10 Her sculpture, influenced by Maillol, focuses on the human form in wood, brass, alabaster and limestone. Burke’s subjects included Duke Ellington, Martin Luther King, and Mary Jane McLeod Bethune. Burke later taught at Swarthmore College and the George School in PA.
In 1944 Burke created a bas relief of President Roosevelt, sculpting him as a young man at the beginning of his political career. She received two in-person sittings with the President. The work was placed in the Recorder of Deeds building in the District of Columbia. When the US Mint issued the dime coin in 1946, it chose John R. Sinnock to design the coin with Roosevelt’s likeness. Sinnock boldly adapted Burke’s bas relief likeness on the obverse, barely changing it. 11 While Burke does not receive credit for this image, she is generally acknowledged as the creator of the Roosevelt profile on the dime still in circulation. Livingston and Spelman Colleges, Wake Forest University, and UNC-Chapel Hill awarded Burke honorary degrees. In 1979, the College Art Association’s Women’s Art Caucus gave her its annual Lifetime Achievement Award.
Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (1890-1960)
Of African American and Native American descent, Prophet was born in Warwick, RI. Her father was a member of the Narragansett tribe and a city worker. Her mother was a cook, and both parents instilled in her a strong work ethic. Working as a domestic, Prophet saved her earnings in order to enter the Rhode Island School of Design in 1915, the first African American to do so, graduating in 1918. Prophet received commissions for her sculptured busts in Providence but soon turned again to domestic work in order to travel to France in 1922. Additional financial support came from fellow sculptor heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Prophet spent 12 years in Paris studying classical sculpture. Her work was accepted in several French salons, where she exhibited life-size figural works. W.E.B. Du Bois and Contee Cullen, Harlem Renaissance notables, and artist Henry O. Tanner helped her show her French work in the United States. She won a Harmon Foundation Prize for Sculpture in 1929. 12
Prophet returned to America in 1932 and exhibited widely in Rhode Island, New York, and Pennsylvania. The Whitney Museum in New York acquired her work; one of the first by an African American to enter their collection. Two years later, Prophet moved to Atlanta and taught at Atlanta University, where Hale Woodruff taught, and later at Spelman College, where she expanded its curriculum to include art history and fine arts. Both Prophet and Woodruff considered it their “…responsibility to encourage students to portray black experience in their work.” Woodruff established an annual Atlanta art exhibition that became the most important venue for showcasing African American art. 13
Discouraged by racial segregation that lingered in the South, Prophet returned to Rhode Island in 1945. She was unsuccessful in reigniting her art career, so she returned to domestic work. Near her death, she acknowledged her Native American descent, but refused to accept her African-American ancestry. Prophet’s Paris diary (1922 to 1934) is in the collection of the John Hay Library at Brown University, Providence, RI.