Black excellence

Augusta Savage was one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance who, as a child, was paid by her principal to teach fellow students

INSPIRATIONAL: Augusta Savage

AUGUSTA SAVAGE was an African-American sculptor and one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

She was also a teacher and her studio was important to the careers of a rising generation of artists who would become nationally known. She worked for equal rights for African Americans in the arts.

Augusta Fells (Savage) was born in Green Cove Springs (near Jacksonville), Florida in 1892.

She began making clay figures as a child, mostly small animals, but her father, Edward Fells, a Methodist minister, would beat her when he found her sculptures.

Augusta once said that her father “almost whipped all the art out of me”.

This was because at that time, he believed her sculpture to be a sinful practice, based upon his interpretation of the “graven images” portion of the Bible.

After the family moved to [West Palm Beach], she sculpted a Virgin Mary figure, and, upon seeing it, her father changed his mind.

The principal of her new school recognised and encouraged her talent, and paid her one dollar a day to teach modeling during her senior year. This began a lifelong commitment to teaching as well as to art.

In 1923, Augusta applied for a summer art program sponsored by the French government; although being more than qualified, she was turned down by the international judging committee, solely because she was black. Augusta was deeply upset, and questioned the committee, beginning the first of many public fights for equal rights in her life.

Savage soon started to make a name for herself as a portrait sculptor. Her works from this time include busts of such prominent African Americans as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Savage was considered to be one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance, a preeminent African-American literary and artistic movement of the 1920s and ’30s.

ADMIRATION: Augusta with one of her pieces

She got her chance to study abroad in Paris when she was awarded a Julius Rosenwald fellowship in 1929, based in part on a bust of her nephew entitled Gamin.

In 1934, she became the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She then launched the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, located in a basement on West 143rd Street in Harlem. She opened her studio to anyone who wanted to paint, draw, or sculpt. Her many young students would include the future nationally known artists Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Gwendolyn Knight.

Much of her work is in clay or plaster, as she could not often afford bronze. One of her most famous busts is titled Gamin, which is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.; a life-sized version is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

A biography of Augusta Savage intended for younger readers has been written by author Alan Schroeder. In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage was released in September 2009 by Lee and Low, a New York publishing company.

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