Reference Entry

Savage, Augusta

Mary Ball Howkins

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Savage, Augusta

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sculptor, teacher, administrator, and writer. Augusta Fells Savage, who became a prominent figure in the “New Negro” movement in 1930s and 1940s Harlem, was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida. Her mother, Cornelia Murphy Fells, was a laundress, and her father, Edward Fells, was a landowner, farmer, carpenter, and fisherman. Savage showed an interest in sculpting in early childhood, sometimes skipping school to mold clay ducks. Her father judged her youthful sculpture so severely from his fundamentalist religious standpoint that she eventually hid the work from him. Yet later, when in her twenties, she fashioned a sculpture of a Christian subject and won his approval.At the age of fifteen Savage married John T. Moore, who died several years after the 1908 birth of their daughter. A second marriage to James Savage ended in divorce in the early 1920s. Augusta Savage traveled to New York City in 1921, leaving Florida during the Great Migration. She arrived with less than $5 in her pocket and began a free art program at Cooper Union the same year, passing through the curriculum in three rather than four years. In 1922 she published a poem in the Negro World and began a public yet intermittent literary career.Perhaps inspired by fellow artists and poets who had set their sights on Paris, Savage applied to the French government to support study abroad for a summer in Fontainebleau. The deciding French committee denied her application, citing her Negro race as awkward for the southern white female students who would have to be in proximity. Appeals from men such as W. E. B. Du Bois, a leading intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance, and the Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas failed, and the New York press reported the controversy for weeks. Producing mainly portraits during this period, Savage thanked Du Bois by sculpting a portrait bust of him, commissioned by friends of the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. Savage endured much hardship both when her third husband, the Garveyite Robert Poston, died in 1924, just months before the death of their newborn daughter, and also when in 1928 she took in eight family members, working in a laundry to support them.In 1927 Savage began private study with a series of Italian American sculptors. After receiving recognition for her work from the Harmon Foundation and a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, she went to Paris in 1929 supported by a Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship. The fellowship committee's favorable response to Gamin, an informal, expressive bust of a street urchin, true to African American physiognomy, was largely responsible for the award. In the lively and more racially tolerant cultural environment of Paris, Savage risked expanding her sculptural subject matter and worked toward diversity and maturity of style. An availability of black models willing to pose in the nude, and the specific celebration of the black female body of Josephine Baker, propelled Savage toward a singular representation of African women's bodies. She committed strongly to African physiognomy of both genders while in Paris until 1931 and moved toward a modernist aesthetic in some sculpture. The Parisian art establishment awarded Savage citations of excellence and a medal for exhibited work.After returning to New York, Savage became a leader in instructing and mentoring young African American artists, an organizer of young intellectuals on behalf of progressive causes, and an arts administrator. In 1932 she founded and then directed the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts at 163 West 143d Street. Some students she instructed became well-known artists: Jacob Lawrence, William Artis, Norman Lewis, Gwendolyn Knight, and Ernest Crichlow. In 1936 she became an assistant supervisor for the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project and tried to increase the number of black artists supported by the organization, as well as to put young black artists in touch with more established artists.In 1937 the New York World's Fair Board of Design commissioned Savage to create a sculpture for the 1939 World's Fair. She was one of only four women to receive such a commission and was the sole African American. The Harp, a major work, received wide publicity when exhibited in the court of the fair's Contemporary Arts Building. Inspired by James Weldon Johnson's poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the work, now destroyed, was a unique interpretation of a harp as a series of rising robed singers. In 1945 Savage retired, joined her daughter in the Catskills, and turned to writing. She died at the age of seventy in the Bronx.

Reference Entry.  960 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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