Clip | Unladylike2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America - Meta Warrick Fuller: Trailblazing African American Sculptor and Poet

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968), born to a black middle class family in Philadelphia, attended the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Arts in 1897, and moved to Paris in 1899 to study sculpture for three years. There, she met French sculptor Auguste Rodin who was impressed by her powerful work, and she became known as the “sculptor of horrors” for her dark, expressive artistic renderings. When she returned to the U.S., Warrick was commissioned by W.E.B. DuBois to create art for several world fairs that would represent African American history and contributions to the country. Despite opposition from her husband and ostracism from the U.S. art scene, Fuller created revolutionary sculptures throughout the 1910s and 1920s that elevated the African American experience as a subject worthy of depiction in art. Anticipating themes of the Harlem Renaissance, her work sought to celebrate African heritage and African American cultural identity. Late in her career, in the 1960s, she wrote poetry and created sculptural tributes to the civil rights movement.

Interviewees: historian Renée Ater, Associate Professor Emerita, American Art, The University of Maryland and author of Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller; sculptor Alison Saar, whose artwork focuses on the African diaspora and black female identity.

To learn more about Meta Warrick Fuller and access learning resources, visit PBSLearningMedia.

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Meta Warrick Fuller was really an important artist, at a time where not many African American sculptors were telling their own stories. Meta's work is passionate, it's daring.

1899. Paris, France.

22-year old Meta Warrick Fuller arrived alone from the U.S. to attend art school.

She was restricted from access in the U.S. from predominantly all white academies. This is why she goes to Paris.

There are not a lot of African American women who are doing this in the late 19th, early 20th century.

It's arranged that she will go to the American Girls Club to find residence there. But she's denied the minute she shows up at the door.

'The director said, 'You didn't tell me that you were not a white girl!' I said, 'I was told that the Club was here for American girls who came to Paris to study - and I felt that I, as an American girl, was entitled to come.'' Warrick Fuller found her own apartment and enrolled in art school.

Meta was shocked to encounter American style racism in Paris.

But that defining moment forced her to become independent and to become more fully an artist.

Meta Warrick Fuller was born in 1877 to a middle class family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Her father owned his own barber shop, and her mother was a hairdresser.

And they were able to provide her with activities that were fairly unusual for most black kids growing up in the United States- music and dance classes, art making classes.

'My father and I went to art exhibitions and together we lived in the pictures we saw, and the sculptures overwhelmed us.'

Fuller was very interested in work that can convey deep emotion and kind of the psychological interior.

Particularly as a teenager, she was interested in ghost stories and tales of horror.

'This was the food upon which my imagination thrived.'

Warrick Fuller was studying in Paris, when a world's fair opened in 1900.

World fairs were places that African Americans felt they could set the record straight about their education, their contributions to literature, to the arts, to music.

The organizers of the American Negro exhibit - including noted scholar W.E.B DuBois, one of the founders of the NAACP - invited Warrick Fuller to create displays celebrating black history.

She starts out as a young artist, and right away she makes this important connection with W.E.B DuBois.

He becomes someone who will promote her career. They assembled dioramas that were scenes of black life, and statistical information to prove the advancement of the black race.

In Paris, Warrick Fuller also met the country's leading sculptor, Auguste Rodin.

He takes her around his studios.

She sees his plaster casts of body parts and she is floored by this experience.

He is downright influential on her work- that interest in the interior life, but also in the artist's hand being present in the materials, is something she fully understands from Rodin.

'Rodin is the master of them all.

My heart went out and with clenched fists, I determined to fulfill my promise.'

Warrick Fuller's work was shown in three major exhibitions in Paris, including one at the students club, which rejected her three years prior.

She is the only American sculptor that is called out in the French press for her kind of amazing work.

And she's called 'the sculptor of horrors' because she is creating small scale objects that show the deepest, darkest emotions that we can have.

'My work is of the soul, rather than the figure, and sometimes the figure must be very crude in order to carry the full strength of the spiritual meaning.'

She's able to convey so much emotion and power in these figures, simply by a turn of the head or a tilt of the hip.

She's a real incredible and unique talent in that respect.

My name is Alison Saar, and I'm an artist.

I really enjoy the transformation of materials.

Such a huge part of sculpture is actually physically being able to experience it through touch. When I was growing up, it was pretty few and far between that we could see an exhibition of an artist of color, and more so of even women artists.

Being a sculptor and working with things like chainsaws and rusty tin definitely wouldn't have been considered ladylike then.

Sculpture has always been a man's world, all the schools I went to, all the sculpture teachers were male. It was very macho. So, it was a difficult trail to pursue.

Warrick Fuller returned to Philadelphia. Despite her success abroad, she was ostracized from the white male dominated art scene.

Once she walked into that gallery space as a black woman, the racism just was enacted almost immediately.

'There were many disappointments when I tried to sell work, but I resolved to work at all odds and continue to create.'

In 1907, Warrick Fuller became the first African American woman to receive a federal art commission, when DuBois invited her to mark the 300th anniversary of the Jamestown Virginia Settlement.

It was a very complicated situation.

African Americans were not allowed to attend during regular hours.

There would be what were called 'Negro days.' But she showed at this fair and won a prize for these dioramas about progress.

She's not stereotyping.

She's not resorting to those early 20th century images of the mammy or Uncle Tom. She's trying to offer an alternative vision about blackness.

'I was anxious to do the work because I loved it, and because it was an opening for me.'

She met Solomon Carter Fuller, the first person of African descent to practice psychiatry in the U.S. They married in 1909, set up a home in Framingham, Massachusetts, and had three sons.

Her husband wanted her to be a mother and a wife first.

He was not interested in her pursuing her art career full time.

She had to carve out a space in her attic where she continued to create.

Warrick Fuller later secretly built herself a studio near their home.

In 1910, a fire broke out in the warehouse where she stored her work.

Sixteen years of her art was destroyed.

Most of her work from Paris does not remain because it was destroyed in this fire. She must have been just heart sore at the loss of this collection.

'This morning I got up feeling so blue.

It is awful to feel you have power you cannot make use of.'

In 1913, Fuller was commissioned to create a sculpture for the 50th anniversary of the abolishment of slavery.

She creates a statue of two figures, a man and a woman.

They are semi nude, and they are not being liberated by Abraham Lincoln or a former owner.

They're self liberating.

She was radical during her time period for taking up the black body in sculpture.

My monument for Harriet Tubman in Harlem is probably the most prominent.

I have embedded in her skirt various objects that would belong to passengers on the underground railroad - what few things you could actually carry while trying to escape slavery. And then coming out of the back of her skirt are these roots, which symbolize her role in uprooting slavery.

I'm really interested in these strong African American female figures who have historically held up the world.

Warrick Fuller sculpted her most well known public work for a 1921 exhibit in New York.

She created this statue to represent the awakening of black people.

'Here was a Negro, gradually unwinding the bandage of its mummied past and looking out on life again, expectant but unafraid.'

As the health of her husband declined, he insisted she gave up her art career.

'I have given up everything to look after him.

I had hoped to leave behind work that would have meaning to the coming generation, but that is all over now.'

Despite her personal disappointments, Warrick Fuller was considered a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and intellectual awakening among African Americans in the 1920s.

Meta becomes a model for other women sculptors - Augusta Savage, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, are looking to Fuller as a model of a African American woman sculptor who had made it in the early part of the century.

After her husband's death, Warrick Fuller, now in her 70s, returned to making art intermittently. Writing poetry, often of a religious nature became her new passion.

'Wait reverently and have no fear.

The hand which fashioned you is gentle and will guide with loving care.'

Warrick Fuller died in 1968 at age 91.

Three decades later, 'Emancipation' was cast in bronze and installed as a public monument in Boston's Harriet Tubman Square.

I imagine myself and other women of color working in sculpture are all part of this legacy, starting with her, and it would be really nice to think that she's going to continue to influence other young female artists yet to come.

'The Negro possesses as much artistic ability as any other group of Americans.

Despite the many hindrances, much has been accomplished in which we may take pride.'