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Jacob Lawrence’s Life as a Painted Canvas
“I do not look upon the story of the Blacks in America as a separate experience to American culture but as a part of the American heritage and experience as a whole.”
— Jacob Lawrence
One of my greatest joys when reading a book is stumbling upon the unexpected. Like little known historical figures, esoteric facts, and places that I didn’t even know existed.
It was on a second-floor display table of the iconic BookPeople bookstore in Austin, Texas that I first laid my eyes on the book “Art Is Life: Icons & Iconoclasts, Visionaries and Vigilantes, & Flashes of Hope in the Night” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jerry Saltz. A long-time art critic who’s refreshing in his openness, Saltz offers readers a smorgasbord of rambling, no -holds-barred pontifications about the world of artistic creation.
In one of the book’s early chapters Saltz brings shock value to his readers by tossing famed painter Norman Rockwell under the bus advising that…..
….. “when it comes to the claims being made for (Rockwell), my advice is just say no. He’s a big moneymaker and crowd-pleaser, an every-man artist everyone can understand. He’s also a postmodern fad.”
Instead he challenges readers to take note of a lesser known 20th century Black artist by the name of Jacob Lawrence. While having heard of Lawrence’s name in passing, I knew nothing about his artistic wizardry. It’s here where Saltz captured my attention, highlighting the significance of Lawrence’s magnum opus, a series of paintings known as “Migration of the Negro.” Published in 1941, Lawrence’s oeuvre depicts the great migration of Black Americans from the Southern to Northern United States.
In bringing a spotlight to “Migration of the Negro,” Saltz in a book excerpt writes:
“Migration tells that desperate story movingly and with a vivacious, almost levitating pictorial flair. Lawrence’s colors are flat-footed yet brass; he loves deploying patches of bright yellow and off-orange across his surfaces, and interspersing these with murky, muddy greens and browns. The look of his work is at once crude and deft. None of the individual paintings in Migration is much bigger than a clipboard, yet the whole has an emotional resonance akin to that of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and is the equal of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in its depiction of oppression, misery, and hope.”
As is a common occurrence with me whenever I find fascination with a historic figure introduced in a book, I immediately went down a rabbit hole to learn more about Lawrence. Here’s what I discovered:
Born in New Jersey before relocating with his family to Harlem to spent his formative years, Lawrence was proud of his southern roots. He was the child of migrants who made the trek north with millions of other Black Americans — a period known as the Great Migration (1915 - 1950s).
Lawrence credits the cultural and intellectual movement known as the Harlem Renaissance (1920s–1930s) as his main inspiration for wanting to become as artist. In once describing his beloved Harlem neighborhood, he noted:
“All these people on the street, various colors, so much pattern, so much movement, so much color, so much vitality, so much energy.”
It was these very cultural textures of Harlem as expressed in songs, Biblical stories, and tales of migratory stories of Black folk from the South that sparked Lawrence’s thirst for art making. In the 1930s having signed up for his first art classes, Lawrence by the time he was 23 had completed a narrative series of major Black figures, including the likes of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman and Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution.
Rich with vibrant patterns, blocks of color, and angular figures that brought rise to breathtakingly narrative pieces, Lawrence’s art infused a sociological bent into Black neighborhood life and industrial work experiences.
During the early 1940’s amid World War II and the continued emergence of Black Harlem, Lawrence was immersed in his aesthetic creativity, eventually putting brush to canvas on the Great Migration series. He was a frequent visitor to the local library, engaging in deep research on the significance of this Black migratory pattern. Lawrence also documented stories shared with him by family, friends, and neighbors on their nomadic northward journeys, all fodder for the series of 60 or so paintings that comprised his celebrated Migration Series.
As Saltz noted in Art Is Life:
“All you need to know about the makings of Migration, other than that Lawrence worked on all of the panels simultaneously and completed them at the precocious age of twenty-three, is that the artist lived it. By the time he was thirteen, when his Virginia-born mother moved him and his to West 143rd street, Lawrence had lived in three cities. When he completed Migration in 1941, he’s already executed multipanel paintings depicting the lives of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Toussaint Louverture.”
In 1941, with the ugly stain of segregation in full bloom, he smashed through a racial barrier by becoming the first Black American artist to have a work acquired by The Museum of Modern Art. By way of his illuminating visual storytelling, Lawrence’s art delivers a unique look at the paradoxical complexities of Black American history and culture to both Black communities and the broader global world.
Couple this Black Books, Black Minds article with two feature feature I wrote for Libertarianism.org — “The Harlem Renaissance: Black Cultural Innovation Unleashed” and “The Florida Highwaymen and the Art of Black Free Enterprise”
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