They say you can’t keep a good woman down. The same applies to Augusta Savage — you can’t keep a good exhibit closed. Lift Every Voice, an exhibit presented by the Saugerties Historical Society featuring seven sculptures created the Saugerties resident, civil rights activist and sculptor opened on Feb. 17 and will be on display until this August at the historic Kiersted House, 119 Main St.
Born in 1892, Savage was a resident of the hamlet Katsbaan from 1945 until shortly before her death in 1962. “Gus,” as she was known locally by her friends and neighbors, retired from the New York art world in 1945 and moved upstate. To support herself in her new surroundings, Savage raised chickens and pigeons that were sold in New York City and worked at the laboratory of Herman Knaust taking care of mice.
Knaust also kept her supplied with clay so that she could continue to create sculptures. Her subjects were the children who frequently came to visit her, as well as animals. Savage accepted commissions when she could get them, one of which was a bust of the reclusive author and journalist Poultney Bigelow who resided in Malden-on-Hudson.
Savage taught art to local children and spent some of her time writing children’s books and poetry to augment her income. She was also invited on occasion to give talks, one in particular about the Congo that she presented at the Atonement Lutheran Church in 1961.
Before relocating to Saugerties, Savage led a trailblazing career — she was considered to be one of the leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American literary and artistic movement during the early 20th century. During the Depression she lobbied the Works Projects Administration to help find work for young artists and was appointed as a director at the WPA’s Harlem Community Center.
In 1929, she got a chance to study in Paris and while there traveled to other European countries. Upon returning to the U.S. in 1932 she established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts and became the first black artist to join the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors (now called the National Association of Women Artists). Savage was an active spokesperson for African-American artists and in 1935 was a principal organizer of the Harlem Artists Guild.
In 1939, Savage was commissioned to create a sculpture for the New York World’s Fair. Inspired by a poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson she created The Harp. The sculpture was 16 feet tall and featured 12 singing African-American youths in graduated heights as the strings. The figure of a young man kneeling in front offered music in his hands. Although considered one of her major works, The Harp was destroyed at the end of the fair.
Lift Every Voice, the exhibit presented by the Saugerties Historical Society, is made possible through the generosity of the Baran family: Audrey Steenburn, Wesley Finger and Karen Johnson Myer to whom these sculptures were given by Savage. For operating hours and directions, visit the society’s website at www.saugertieshistoricalsociety.org or contact Marjorie Block, president of the Saugerties Historical Society at (845) 246-0784. l