Augusta Christine Fells Savage was born on February 29, 1892, in Cove Springs Florida. Her mother was Cornelia Murphy and her father, Edward Fells, was a poor Methodist minister. Augusta began to make figures out of the red clay that was plentiful in her backyard. She created small animals and other figures out of this natural substance that she found fascinating. Her father believed sculpture to be a sinful practice and he strongly opposed his daughters early interest in this art form. So strong his opposition, that Augusta relates the following: "My father licked me four or five times a week, and almost whipped all the art out of me.”
But he did not succeed in whipping the art out of her. She persevered and when she was in high school, the principal encouraged her talent and actually asked her to teach a modeling class. Her lifelong commitment to art was strengthened, and a new commitment to teach art was born.
In 1907, when she was only 15 years old, she married John T. Moore. The couple had one child, a daughter, Irene Connie Moore who was born a year later. John died shortly after Irene was born. In 1915 she married James Savage, a carpenter and laborer. Although divorced sometime in the early 1920’s, she kept the name of Savage.
Her love of sculpting only increased and she continued to pursue this art form. In 1919 she had a booth at the Palm Beach County Fair and was awarded a $25 price for the most original exhibit. In 1921 she moved to New York City with a letter of recommendation from George Graham, who was the County Fair director. The letter introduced her to Solon Borglum, a sculptor of note at the School of American Sculpture. Borglum discovered she could not afford the tuition at the School of American Sculpture where he taught, and encouraged her to apply at the Cooper Union School, a school that was scholarship based. With his encouragement and $4.60 in her pocket she applied to Cooper Union school, where she was selected before 142 other men on the waiting list. Her talent and great ability had greatly impressed the the Cooper Union officials that she was awarded additional funds for room and board.
Until 1923 she studied under the sculptor George Brewster and completed a four year degree in three years. That same year she applied for a summer art program that was sponsored by the French government. She was more than qualified but she was not accepted by the international judging committee. The all-white, all-male American selection committee rescinded the offer, solely because she was a black woman. The following a quote from an open letter from her published in the New York World: “I hear so many complaints to the effect that Negroes do not take advantage of the educational opportunities offered them. Well, one of the reasons why more of my race do not go in for higher education is that as soon as one of us gets his head above the crowd there are millions of feet ready to crush it back again to that dead level of commonplace thus creating a racial deadline of culture in our Republic. For how am I to compete with other American artists if I am not to be given the same opportunity?”
Savage was very upset and questioned the committee at length, of course to no avail. This began the first of many battles for equal rights that lasted her entire life. Appeals were made to the French government to to avail and she was therefore, prohibited from studying at the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts. As a result of the wide press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, the one supportive committee member, sculptor Hermon Atkins Mac Neil, invited her to study with him.
When she graduated from Cooper Union, she worked as a steam laundress in New York City to support her family. Her father had suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed and their Florida home had been destroyed by a hurricane. Her Florida family moved into her tiny apartment on 137th Street in New York City. During this time she received her first commission to sculpt a bust of W.E.B. DuBois for the Library in Harlem. The outstanding sculpture that resulted led to more commissions, including one for a bust of Marcus Garvey. Her sculpture of William C. Pickens Sr., a key figure at that time in the NAACP, earned her great praise far and wide for her depiction of the African American in a more humane, realistic and neutral way as opposed to the stereotypes of the time.
In 1928 she won the Otto Kahn Price at an exhibition at the Harmon Foundation with her submission Head of a Negro. She was openly critical of the way in which Negro’s were still portrayed and was vocal about The Harmon Foundations Director, Mary Beattie Brady, “lack of understanding the the area of visual arts in general and low standards for Black art.”
Her talent and struggles had become well known in the African American Community and many fundraisers were held to support her. Money sent from Florida A & M combined with funds from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, enabled her to study in Paris with Charles Despiau at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. Here, she exhibited and wood numerous awards. She toured France, Belgium and Germany researching sculpture in cathedrals and museums.
She returned to the United States in 1931, greatly energized from her travels and study abroad. In 1934 she was the first African American artist elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She opened the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts located in a basement on West 143rd Street, in Harlem. This studio was open to anyone who wanted to paint, draw or sculpt. Many young students came through those doors, including future nationally acclaimed artists, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis and Gwendolyn Knight. This little school evolved into the Harlem Community Art Center where 1500 people of all ages and abilities attended workshops, learning from her multi cultural staff and showing work all around New York City.
Savage was one of four women and only two African Americans, to receive a professional commission from the Board of Design at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Her 16 foot tall plaster sculpture, Lift Every Voice and Sing - also known as The Harp, was the most popular and most photographed work at the fair. The work reinterpreted the musical instrument to feature 12 singing African-American youth in graduated heights as its strings, with the harp's sounding board transformed into an arm and a hand. In the front, a kneeling young man offered music in his hands. Savage did not have funds to have it cast in bronze or to move and store it. Like other temporary installations, the sculpture was destroyed at the close of the fair.
She opened two galleries whose shows were well attended and well reviewed, but few sales resulted and the galleries closed. The last major showing of her work occurred in 1939. It was a difficult time for her financially and in the 1940’s she moved into a little farmhouse in Saugerties, New York, near Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains. She lived in relative obscurity for 20 years but established close ties with her neighbors and welcomed family and friends from New York City to her rural home. Savage cultivated a garden and sold pigeons, chickens, and eggs. She taught art to children and wrote children's stories.
The K-B Products Corporation, the world's largest growers of mushrooms at that time, employed Savage as a laboratory assistant in the company's cancer research facility. She acquired a car and learned to drive to enable her commute. Herman K. Knaust, director of the laboratory, encouraged Savage to pursue her artistic career and provided her with art supplies. Savage created and taught art and sculpted friends and neighbors.
Much of Savages work is in clay or plaster because she simply could not afford bronze. One of her most famous busts is titled Gamin is modeled after a Harlem youth. It was voted most popular in an exhibition of over 200 works by Black artists. It is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. A life sized version is in the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Augusta Savage fought poverty, racism and sexism to become a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the period of African-American cultural outpouring in New York City during the 1920s and '30s. Her extraordinary talent opened many doors that led to her becoming one of the most influential black teachers of her time and a strong voice for civil rights for blacks. Her home in the Catskills is recognized by the National Register of Historical Places as the Augusta Savage House and Studio.
"I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work."—T. R. Poston, "Augusta Savage," Metropolitan Magazine, Jan. 1935.