Augusta Savage, Artist, Activist, Educator
Artist, activist, educator. Born Augusta Christine Fells on February 29, 1892, in Green Cove Springs, Florida. An important African-American artist, Savage began making art as a child, using the natural clay found in her community. She liked to sculpt animals and other small figures. But her father, a Methodist minister, didn’t approve of this activity, and did whatever he could to stop her. Savage once said that her father “almost whipped all the art out of me.”
Despite her father’s objections, Savage continued to make sculptures. When the family moved to West Palm Beach, Florida in 1915, she encountered a new challenge, a lack of clay. Savage eventually got some materials from a local potter and created a group of figures that she entered in a local county fair. Her work was well-received, winning a prize and the support of the fair’s organizer, George Graham Currie. He encouraged her to study art.
After a failed attempt to establish herself as a sculptor in Jacksonville, Florida, Savage moved to New York City in 1920s. She struggled financially throughout her life, but was able to study art at the Cooper Union, which did not charge tuition. After a year, the school gave her a scholarship to help with living expenses. Savage excelled there, finishing her course work in three years instead of the usual four.
While at the Cooper Union, she had an experience that would influence her life and work in 1923. Savage applied to a special summer program to study art in France, but was rejected because of her race. She took the rejection as a call to action, and sent letters to the local media about the program selection committee’s discriminatory practices. Savage’s story made headlines in many newspapers.
Despite her efforts, the committee refused to change its mind. Although disappointed, Savage found success in other areas. She started to make a name for herself as portrait sculptor. Her works from this time include portraits of such leading African Americans as W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. Savage was considered to be one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American literary and artistic movement of the 1920s.