Augusta Savage (born Augusta Christine Fells)
February 29, 1892 – March 27, 1962
Augusta Christine Fells was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, the seventh of her parents, Edward and Cornelia’s, 14 children. Green Cove Springs was a brick-making town that had a lot of natural red clay. As a child, Fells made mud pies from the red clay she found in the local pits and eventually graduated to molding small sculptures of animals and figures. Her father, a strict Methodist minister, did not approve of this creative outlet as he viewed the figures as carved idols. Fells was punished by her father because he regarded this as a violation of the 10 Commandments but she continued sculpting.
At the age of 15, Fells married John T. Moore and a year later the couple had a child named Irene Connie. Unfortunately, Moore died a few years later leaving Fells a widow at quite a young age. But, Fells’ gift as a sculptor was eventually recognized and appreciated by her teachers. By her senior year of high school, Fells was invited to teach a sculpting class for $1 per day.
In 1915, Fells moved to West Palm Beach and remarried to James Savage, a carpenter whose last name she took. The new location seemed to offer a bright future but the lack of natural clay presented a problem. Four years later after sourcing clay from a potter, Savage was inspired to compete in the West Palm Beach County Fair and won a prize and ribbon with a group of figures she’d sculpted. With her win at the fair and encouragement from its superintendent, she was motivated to pursue her interest in art and moved to Jacksonville in hopes of earning a living making busts of the city’s wealthy Black residents. Savage’s plans to achieve success as a working artist in Jacksonville didn’t pan out and she also divorced her second husband around the same time.
But, she didn’t give up on her dreams, instead, she left her daughter with her parents and moved to Harlem, New York City. Her talent as a sculptor enabled her to attend Cooper Union, a prestigious art school that does not charge tuition for students who are gifted enough to be admitted. Savage enrolled in a four-year program but her talent was advanced enough to have some of the courses waived, allowing her to graduate in three years.
She arrived in New York with very little money and while she didn’t have to worry about tuition, she cleaned houses to support herself. Eventually, Cooper Union offered her a scholarship which helped to cover her rent and other living expenses. Savage began to make a name for herself and was commissioned to create sculptures of W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. The Garvey project was of both professional and personal significance as this was how she met Robert L. Poston who she married in 1923 and unfortunately died a year later.
While Savage’s talent provided her with new experiences and opportunities, it didn’t shield her from racism. She was awarded a scholarship to study for a summer at the Fontainebleau School of the Arts in Paris, France but the offer was revoked when the selection committee learned she was Black. The other women who had been selected for the program were White and the committee was concerned that they would be uncomfortable working and living in close proximity to Savage. Refusing to just accept this injustice, Savage shared her ordeal with the local press where it made headlines but didn’t influence the committee’s decision. Though Herman MacNeil, a committee member, regretted the decision and offered Savage the opportunity to work on her art at his studio.
It would take several years but Savage was finally able to travel and study abroad beginning in 1929. She’d completed a bust entitled, Gamin, using her nephew as a model for which she received a Julius Rosenwald fellowship. The work was notable because it was one of the first and few works of fine art to present a Black child in a realistic and relatable form. An additional Rosenwald fellowship and Carnegie Foundation grant allowed her to extend her time in Europe to a total of three years.
Her return to America coincided with the Great Depression which made it difficult for Savage to support herself with just art commissions. She adapted by launching the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts which she ran as both a studio and school. Savage taught several upcoming Black artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Gwendolyn Knight who would go on to become notable in their own right. She also supported other artists by helping them enroll with the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Project which could help them find work. When the WPA established the Harlem Community Art Center, Savage was tapped to become its first director.
In 1937, Savage was commissioned to create a piece for the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and took inspiration from James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. She created a piece named after the poem which consisted of Black choir singers arranged in the shape of a harp. The piece was renamed The Harp by World’s Fair officials and received positive reviews and much acclaim.
As with many of her other pieces, Savage didn’t have the financial resources to cast it in bronze or another durable material. As a result, The Harp was destroyed at the end of the fair but photographs still exist due to its popularity at the time. After the fair, when Savage returned to the Harlem Community Art Center she learned that her position had been filled. Despite multiple attempts, she was unable to reestablish herself as an artist or gallery owner.
Reeling from her professional losses, she relocated to Saugerties, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. She found solace in the small town and taught children at summer camps, spent time writing, and created a few sculptures of tourists. Savage also rebuilt her relationship with her daughter and her daughter’s family eventually moving back to New York City to live with her daughter where she passed away from cancer. Augusta Savage died in relative obscurity but her talent has been memorialized through a biography, exhibits of her work, historical registration of her Catskills home, and a cultural arts center in her hometown.
- “Augusta Savage.” 2020. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. July 9, 2020. https://www.biography.com/artist/augusta-savage.
- “Augusta Savage.” n.d. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed August 23, 2020. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/augusta-savage-4269.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2020. “Augusta Savage.” Edited by J. E. Luebering. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. March 22, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Augusta-Savage.
- Stamberg, Susan. 2019. “Sculptor Augusta Savage Said Her Legacy Was The Work Of Her Students.” NPR. NPR. July 15, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/07/15/740459875/sculptor-augusta-savage-said-her-legacy-was-the-work-of-her-students.
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