In 1939, Augusta Fells Savage, mother of the Harlem Renaissance and a talented sculptor in her own right, was the first African American women to open her own art gallery, the ‘Salon of Contemporary Negro Art’. She had hoped that it would take away the racial prejudice that kept them out of the mainstream art world.
Born in Florida on February 29th, 1892, Savage yearned to sculpt ever since she was a child. Her journey of artistry began when she was accepted into an art program sponsored by the French government at the Fontainebleau’s School of Fine Arts but was then rejected when it was understood that she was black. Savage, a woman with indomitable will, would not let this stand, and publicized said injustice, writing letters to newspapers in both America and Europe, which made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.
After completing her studies, Savage worked on her sculpting, making her the work voted most popular in 1929, amongst an exhibition of 200 works by black artists. Today, Gamin is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In 1934, Savage became the first African American artist elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors and established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem, open to anyone who wanted to learn to paint, draw, or sculpt. Savage’s ‘piece de resistance’ was a 16-foot tall sculpture, The Harp, reimagined a standing harp using twelve standing African American youth as its strings, with an arm and hand as its sounding board. The Harp was commissioned by Board of Design for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and was inspired by the song ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ and was known as the “black national anthem”.
At 70, she died of cancer in 1962, almost forgotten in her time, but her impact as an artist and teacher would survive into the contemporary era. Through her career, Savage struggled against racial and sexual discrimination and fought to help African American artists publicize their work, in addition to the students she fostered during the Harlem Renaissance. She devoted much of her later life to teaching children and summer art camps, where several of her students went on to become nationally acclaimed artists, such as abstract painter Norman Lewis, figurative painter Jacob Lawrence, and portrait artist Gwendolyn Knight. She once said, “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.”