A Woman to Know: Augusta Savage

I was a Leap Year baby, and it seems to me that I have been leaping ever since. — Augusta Savage

I was a Leap Year baby, and it seems to me that I have been leaping ever since. — Augusta Savage

(image via Smithsonian Museum)

Augusta first found clay in her hometown: Cove Springs, Florida. As a child of the Jim Crow South, she sought refuge in the red clay made famous by her neighborhood’s brick-building industry. Her father, however, despised his daughter’s art, calling them “graven images” and considering them an affront to his fire-and-brimstone beliefs. “He nearly whipped all the art out of me,” Augusta later said.

But a local art teacher saw Augusta’s promise and encouraged her to apply to school in New York. Augusta enrolled at Cooper Union and moved to Harlem, finding her community in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance.

In the 1920s, she applied to art school in Paris — only to have her offer rescinded when the administration discovered she was black. Undeterred, Augusta moved to Paris without an acceptance letter. She worked there for three years, winning awards and earning international acclaim. By the time she moved back to Harlem in the 1930s, she had enough of a name to her work that she could turn her former studio into an art school. She sculpted busts of local leaders and offered free lessons for neighborhood children.

In 1939, she unveiled her monumental piece “The Harp” at the World’s Fair site in Queens. Souvenir copies still crop up in private collections around the world.

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