|REMEMBERING JACOB LAWRENCE|
June 13, 2000
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Jacob Lawrence's canvases are mostly small panels, but they explode with images larger than life, images of everyday life in the black community, expressed in brilliant colors, in his distinctive cubist-expressionist style. Works like "Pool Parlor," "Bar and Grill," "Funeral Service." In his artistic repertoire of the past 50 years are drawings, prints, book illustrations, and large murals.
Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917, in Atlantic City. His mother, a single parent with three other children, tried to support them by doing domestic work, but was often on welfare. The family lived in Philadelphia for a few years, before finally moving to Harlem when Lawrence was about 13 years old. It was the 1930's, in the midst of the Great Depression and the tail end of the dynamic literary and artistic period known as the Harlem Renaissance. The young Lawrence absorbed the influences of economic hard times and a burgeoning black consciousness. Lawrence was inspired by his first mentor, artist Charles Alston, and the sculptor and painter Augustus Savage. Also, Romaire Beardon and another budding young artist, Gwendolyn Knight, whom he later married. It was during this time that Lawrence began spending long hours in places like Harlem's Chambourg Library, diligently researching the epic struggles of the heroes and she-roes of the black community.
The results, painstakingly depicted in each brush stroke, earned Lawrence a unique place in black history, and the title "History Painter." The first of Lawrence's history paintings was done in 1937, a sequence of panels chronicling the late 18th century liberator of Haiti, Toussaint L'Ouverture. In the series, Lawrence was to establish the pattern of not using titles for his work, but numbers accompanied by simple sentences to help tell the dramatic story he was portraying. For example, number ten of the series is called "The Cruelty of the Planters Towards the Slaves Drove the Slaves to Revolt, 1776." Black American Liberators followed next. A Frederick Douglas series of 32 panels followed in 1938; then, a Harriet Tubman series of 31 panels in 1939.
But the first of Lawrence's series to be featured in a major downtown exhibition was "Migration," 60 panels completed in 1941, when Lawrence was 23 years old. It's a story of the black exodus from the South to the North after World War I, and it too followed the now-familiar pattern. The line accompanying this painting was "They Were Very Poor." Critics have called the "Migration" series Lawrence's greatest achievement, establishing him as the pictorial griot of his own African American community, griot being the African word for the village storyteller who passes on the history and tradition of his people.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Your series about the great migration has been called by critics one of your greatest achievements, and yet you grew up in the North. What inspired your interest in the great migration?
JACOB LAWRENCE, Artist; Because we were part of that -- my family, it was part of that. So many people of my age, we were born in the North, but our roots were southern because of our parents, the peers of our parents, our customs, mores, were all southern. I... my first trip into the South was after I completed this series.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: After?
JACOB LAWRENCE: I'd never been South before.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you want the audience to experience, looking at this series?
JACOB LAWRENCE: The... I'd like them to experience the beauty of life, the struggle, how people can overcome certain things that could be very frustrating or very demeaning. And people have the capacity to overcome these obstacles by various means, and this is an example of that. And I'd like the people to look, feel, "look, this is me. This is mankind or womankind." And I'm talking about people in general, and I would like it to be a universal statement. That's how I feel.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How available was the art world to blacks during those years?
JACOB LAWRENCE: It had been closed. And this was true for artists in general. The art world is a very elitist world. One did not just go into galleries... you could go into galleries, you could into the museums, but you didn't feel that you were welcome. Physically you could go in, but you weren't going to be a patron, you weren't going to buy works of art.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You just went to see.
JACOB LAWRENCE: Yeah, you just went to see.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I read once that you used to walk 60 blocks from Harlem to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just to see.
JACOB LAWRENCE: That's right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What story or experience would you like next to capture on canvas?
JACOB LAWRENCE: You know, for a number of years I've been working on, periodically, the theme of the builders. I like tools. It's not a series, because it's not a narrative form, of people working with tools, and using this as a symbol or metaphor for building as a symbol of that. And I'd like to continue that. I don't have any special stories now I can tell, or that I'm thinking of.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But why is building important?
JACOB LAWRENCE: Well, to me it's a symbol of progress. It's a symbol of hope, on various levels, where you look at it. It's a symbol of our... again, our capacity, the human capacity to build, to not tear down. I guess all animals have this, more or less. And we are animals. The beaver builds, the cat builds. It seems like every living thing builds. And I think it's a beautiful symbol.