Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage’s legacy preserved in Ulster County

Artist Augusta Savage (National Archives)

Let us agree, as a baseline value, that people are more valuable than things, always. This being said, still there is something about the destruction of great art that strikes the heart in a particular way that the death of an individual, or even a population, cannot. We ache and rage when we learn how the Nazis torched great European artworks that they had stolen, sooner than let them be taken back by their owners, or when we see the Taliban dynamiting sixth-century Buddha statues along the Silk Road because they are “graven images.” Some objects were meant to outlast one or more human lifetimes. They shape our cultures, which in turn shape us.

In America, a disproportionate amount of the art lost to spite or greed or neglect has historically been art made by people of color. The single most popular artwork displayed at the 1939/40 New York World’s Fair – the image that dominated postcards sent home, the way that Michelangelo’s Pietà did at the same site a quarter-century later – was a 16-foot-tall statue titled The Harp, a/k/a Lift Every Voice and Sing. It was sculpted by one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, born in Florida in 1892. Her name was Augusta Fells Savage, and her masterwork was destroyed at the end of the Fair’s two-year run because the artist couldn’t afford to pay to have a bronze casting made of the plaster original.

The loss must have come as a bitter reminder of a girlhood when her Methodist minister father had beaten her regularly for making images: models of farm animals sculpted from clay. But a schoolteacher encouraged young Augusta’s evident talent, and before long she was winning ribbons for her art at local fairs. Married at 15, a mother at 16, soon widowed, remarried and then divorced, she made her way to New York City in 1921 with a letter of recommendation and less than five dollars in her pocket. Fortunately, Cooper Union recognized Augusta Savage’s promise, not only admitting her ahead of 142 men, but also awarding her room and board. She completed the four-year course of study in three years.

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After graduation, Savage worked in a steam laundry to support her family, who had moved into her Harlem apartment following her father’s stroke and the loss of their Florida home to a hurricane. But she began to get commissions for work, including busts of prominent black leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey and William Pickens, Sr. In 1925 Savage had to turn down a tuition scholarship to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome because she couldn’t afford the voyage or accommodations. Grants and fellowships eventually enabled her to take up an internship in Paris, where her work won prizes in prestigious exhibitions, and later to travel through France, Belgium and Germany studying sculpture.

In 1934 Savage became the first African-American member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors (now called the National Association of Women Artists). Both an influential teacher and an arts activist, she turned her Harlem workshop into the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, helped to organize the Harlem Artists’ Guild and co-founded a gallery, the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art. By 1937 she had been appointed the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center, with support from the WPA.

Augusta Savage posing with her sculpture Realization, created as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. (Andrew Herman | Archives of American Art)

But by the early 1940s, between war rationing and a growing public unease with artists who moved in the same circles with socialists, federal funding was cut off. Both the Art Center and the gallery closed. The J. Edgar Hoover-era FBI trained its sights on her. And something else was making Savage’s Harlem life especially difficult: a persistent stalker. Savage had met the eccentric bohemian writer Joe Gould at a poetry reading in the 1920s, after which he became “romantically” obsessed with her. So in 1945 she decided to leave her city life behind, relocating to Saugerties to live in a farmhouse with her grown daughter Irene.

Savage turned a chicken coop into a sculpture studio and continued taking small commissions, lecturing and teaching for the rest of her life, but her once-international fame faded. She raised chickens and pigeons to sell in New York City; wrote children’s books; took care of mice in the cancer research laboratory of Herman Knaust, who made sure that she always had clay and invited her to give lectures and read poetry at soirées at his riverfront estate, Stroomzeit. The neighbors called her Gus.

Savage died of cancer in 1962, in obscurity; as is often the case, her work became collectible again after her death. Though much of it has been lost, some has surfaced in recent decades (along with counterfeits, the sincerest form of artistic flattery) and been snapped up by prestigious museums and private collections. Her best-loved sculpture, a bust of a saucy Harlem boy in a cocked cap titled Gamin, is on display at the Smithsonian. Savage became the heroine of Harvard professor Jill Lepore’s 2016 book, Joe Gould’s Teeth. Art historian Theresa Leininger-Miller is currently writing a biography of Savage, according to The New York Times. The sculptor’s star is rising once again.

In Saugerties, local art-lovers and historic preservationists – including Herman Knaust’s granddaughter, Karlyn Knaust Elia – purchased Savage’s upstate home in 1999 and have been restoring it. Now an exhibition space, the residence is listed on the New York State and National Register of Historic Places as the Augusta Savage House and Studio. Further renovations, a website and an artist-in-residence program are reportedly also in the works. “Lift Every Voice,” an exhibit presented by the Saugerties Historical Society of seven of Savage’s surviving sculptures, ran for more than six months this year at the Kiersted House.

What’s next on the agenda for reclaiming the seemingly lost legacy of this great American artist and teacher? The Student Life Center at SUNY-Ulster will become the home of a collaborative community art project in the form of a mosaic celebrating Augusta Savage’s life and work, organized by the Alfred University-based team of artist “superheroes” known as Art Force 5. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, October 25, students and community members are invited to paint one tile each of a 250-piece mosaic tribute to the sculptor. “Like many people who move to Ulster County from New York City, Savage traded the hustle of Harlem for serenity in Saugerties. Creating a piece of art dedicated to her shows the ties of our community to the importance of art and diversity in US history,” said Meg Sheeley, coordinator of campus life at SUNY-Ulster.

Art Force 5 is partnering with the SUNY-Ulster SGO, the Multicultural Club, COIL and Academic Travel to present this free event. To learn more, contact Deborah Kaufman at kaufmand@sunyulster.edu or (845) 687-5261.