Jacob Lawrence:
Telling the Black Story in Many Colors

Revolutionary Worker #1061, July 1, 2000
"I paint the things I know about and the things I have experienced. The things I have experienced extend into my national, racial and class group. So I paint the American scene."
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)
The death of Jacob Lawrence on June 9 was a great loss for the people. But he has left us with a beautiful body of work that is truly moving and inspiring.
Jacob Lawrence was an artist who told stories with bold splashy colors. He gave us scenes of joy as well as the blues-frozen on canvas, yet moving with all the drama of daily life. He gave us paintings of history and heroes-stark portraits which capture a fearless struggle against oppression.
Drama and motion spring from the art of Jacob Lawrence to chronicle poverty, injustice and racism. And there is real heart embedded in his shapes and hues- a sense of hope and optimism, a celebration of a people who refuse to be kept down.
Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917 and moved with his family to Harlem in 1930. As a teenager he started taking classes at the 135th Street Branch Library - which today is the well-known Schomburg Gallery. One of the teachers there, Charles Alston, had a big influence on young Jacob. And when Alston, a muralist, sculptor, and painter, organized the Utopia Neighborhood Center- an after-school arts program- Jacob became a steady member.
From early on, Jacob Lawrence was a storyteller who turned expansive narratives into bold paintings. Not content to tell an important tale, limited to only one panel-he became known for doing a series of paintings on a single subject. Producing dozens of paintings tied together in theme and style, some of his first series dealt with important Black heroes and episodes of history.
In 1937, when he was only 20 years old, Lawrence began work on his first multi-part narrative, about the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture. These 41 small works done in water-based tempera paint dramatize Haiti's struggle for independence and focus on the exploitation of farm workers by colonial settlers. This artistic tribute to a freedom fighter, with its striking colors, stark geometric shapes, and abstract patterns, established the distinctive style for which Lawrence would become famous.
Other works focusing on Black heroes and the struggle against slavery quickly followed. In 1938, Lawrence completed 32 paintings devoted to the life of Frederick Douglass. The next year he did a series of 31 pieces illustrating the life of Harriet Tubman. And in his John Brown series, Lawrence continued to use skewed perspectives and sharp, angular forms to convey the energy, movement and tension of a narrative about the life-and-death struggle against slavery.
Jacob Lawrence also portrayed the lives of common Black people as heroic - full of dignity gained through struggle. He once said:
"In order to add something to their lives, [black families] decorated their tenements and their homes in all of these colors. I've been asked, is anyone in my family artistically inclined? I've always felt ashamed of my response and I always said no, not realizing that my artistic sensibility came from this ambiance.... It's only in retrospect that I realized I was surrounded by art. You'd walk Seventh Avenue and took in the windows and you'd see all these colors in the depths of the depression. All these colors."
The hardship of the Depression informed many of Lawrence's early paintings of run-down and crowded tenements in Harlem - like "Rain," which depicts three people watching water leak through their tenement roof. But Lawrence's scenes of hardship also burst with vibrant life. And the energy, excitement and rebelliousness of the Harlem Renaissance and the emerging Civil Rights Movement made their way into his paintings.
Lawrence recalled hearing Adam Clayton Powell Sr. deliver sermons in the Abyssinian Baptist Church. He met important Black writers like Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. He saw Aaron Douglas's mural "Aspects of Negro Life" at the 135th Street public library and met and worked with other well-known artists of the Harlem Renaissance like the sculptor Augusta Savage.
In the late 1930s Savage got Lawrence into the W.P.A. Federal Art Project - which provided him with a studio and $23.86 a week. He started using egg tempera at the time, he says, "because I liked its translucence, and it was easy to use, and besides I could buy a jar with a dime." He told one interviewer, "People respected the subjects I was doing, like Harriet Tubman, John Brown. They said, 'He's producing something of value, even though he doesn't really know what he's doing.' "
Lawrence developed a real talent for visual composition - creating whole scenes in which the viewer could share in the motion, sound and energy of the moment.
One of his favorite subjects was the hustle and bustle of New York City neighborhoods. "The Street," with its street-corner gathering of women reflected the avenues of the Bedford Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn where Lawrence was living at the time. "Iceman," done in 1936 when Lawrence was only 19 years old, shows the iceman and his assistant with their pushcart pulled up to a Harlem curb. And already, you can see in this piece the attention to detail that would become one of Lawrence's artistic signatures. There are bottles on a doorstep, a piece of trash crumpled in the gutter, a window washer busy at his job, a woman seen through an apartment window and a man with a dog tugging at the leash. It's a scene of everyday life - full of vitality and the dignity of people as they go about their daily chores.
Lawrence did many other paintings which captured the vibrancy of the Black community. One art critic wrote: "Harlem scenes such as 'The Apartment' and 'Rooftops,' both from 1943, and Rampart Street,' 1941, are dazzling riffs of jazzy color and powerful composition. In 'Rampart Street,' golden-globed street lights illuminate shops as evening crowds stroll by. In 'The Apartment,' Lawrence shows a woman amidst a fugue of boisterously colored rugs, textiles and furniture. Though her apartment may be meager, the woman has turned it into a beautiful hideaway."
Migration Journey
"[Jacob Lawrence was] creating art as a central means by which African Americans could achieve a profound understanding of themselves."
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
"People in the neighborhood were always talking about a new family arriving. They'd be so poor that they'd gather coals that had dropped through the street grates and pick up old clothes when they could find them. When we got to New York, it was the same."
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence's parents were part of the mass migration of Southern Blacks to the North in search of work following World War I. And in 1940, when Lawrence received a grant that enabled him to rent a $8-a-month studio, he began his famous series about the Migration.
Lawrence had heard many Migration stories from people in his family and the community but when he decided to turn the stories into paintings, he wanted to make sure he got the historical background right. He did months of careful research in the Schomburg Collection of the Public Library, New York's chief archive on African American life and history. Art critic Robert Hughes wrote, "He took on the task with a youthful earnestness that remains one of the most touching aspects of the final work, and goes beyond mere self-expression. As a result, you sense that something is speaking through Lawrence - a collectivity."
The result was a 60-painting work collectively titled "The Migration of the Negro."
Lawrence did "Migration" all at once -putting down brilliant shapes-one color at a time-as he moved from one panel to another. He explained to one interviewer in 1994, "I thought in terms of one work and not 60 works. And to hold it together I wanted to use the same colors in the same way. If I had painted one painting and completed it and gone on to the next 60 times, they would all be different."
This visual ballad of the Migration begins and ends with the image of a train station. The progression from one painting to another sings the "blues" of how millions of African Americans journeyed to the North-from the poverty and stark racism in the rural South, to the hardships of travel, and then the new challenge of living in the urban North with its own brand of poverty and racism.
Each piece in this series - no larger than 18 x 12" - has its own title. One says, "The fields are barren, driving hungry families north." Another, "The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South." Another, "After a Lynching the Migration Quickened."
Lawrence's painting of a lynching leaves out the dangling body and the jeering crowd. There is only the earth, an empty noose, a branch and a grieving woman huddled on the ground.
Number 10 in the Migration series shows the basic elements of a Black sharecropper's life: a man and a woman staring at empty bowls on a bare table, an empty basket hangs on the wall.
The series concludes with portrayals of the new Black communities in the North - one title reads, "And the Migrants kept coming."
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., commenting on the significance of the Migration series, noted that Lawrence "critiqued the romanticism of earlier views of the migration and exposed the contradictions in the promised land."
The series was widely acclaimed - showcased at The Museum of Modern Art in 1941, making Jacob Lawrence the first African-American artist to have works in the permanent collection.
"The Builders came from my own observations of the human condition. If you look at a work closely, you see that it incorporates things other than the builders, like a street scene, or a family."
Jacob Lawrence commenting on the
recurring Builders theme in his work
"Building is a resonant theme for an artist whose long and graceful career has been about the affirmation of life and the building of a better world."
Seattle art critic, writing about
Jacob Lawrence in 1998
In the late 1940s, Jacob Lawrence began exploring a theme that would resonate in many of his works and would be the focus of another major series: Builders.
As a young boy Lawrence had watched -and become fascinated-with local carpenters and cabinetmakers in Harlem. He hung around two cabinet makers known in the neighborhood as the Bates brothers and many decades later recalled, "It was beautiful to see them use tools as extensions of their hands. I've loved tools ever since. I collect them and I use them as subjects for my paintings."
Lawrence speaking to the symbolic meaning of tools in his work, noted, "Many hand tools haven't changed for centuries. They have such balance and are so functional. The human body is like a tool. Any living thing has this kind of structure."
Tools and the hands that wield them figure prominently in Lawrence's 1977 silk-screen print, "Carpenters." And around this time, Lawrence also began experimenting with a growing diversity of his own tools and materials. The majority of his work had been created with water-based egg tempera on paper. But during the 1970s he began to expand his repertoire to include prints, drawings, enamel murals, and graphic illustrations.
Over the years Lawrence continually returned to the theme of "Builders." And each time, he would bring renewed perspective and emphasis on the aspirations of the people to build a better life and society.
Lawrence's signature style of bold colors, two-dimensional, flat forms, angular planes and tilted viewpoints gave his Builders paintings an interesting harmony between form and content. One art critic, writing about Lawrence's 1968 "Builders #2" said: "The placement of three carpenters around the worktable, their absorption in their task, and the force of their gestures conjures up images of surgeons performing a critical operation. Lawrence admired hand tools for their beauty and timeless quality, and has placed slide marking gauges protruding from pockets and wood clamps just within a carpenter's reach. The placement of the frenzied hand saws, blades, and wood clamps around the carpenters' heads seems to electrify the workshop with mental exhilaration. Below, a floating hammer, a hand drill, a c-clamp grasping a marker, and a screw embedded in a split block hover in midair as if to signify physical stamina. No element in this painting remains inert, each conveys intense vitality."
Unique Simplicity
and Complexity
"We say 'simplicity' and imply something's easy to accomplish, but this isn't easy. It's a highly refined composition, and I could describe why formally, the way the shapes balance one another, the way the image moves from dark to light. But there's something that I can't describe formally, which is a certain feeling, an intuitiveness, maybe. An emotional authenticity."
Jacob Lawrence talking about
one of his favorite paintings,
Sassetta's "Journey of the Magi"
Jacob Lawrence called his style "dynamic cubism" and he developed a unique technique and form that was spare and simple, yet complex.
He was a systematic craftsman and when he worked on a series, his method was fixed: After completing the preliminary drawings for the whole series, he would lay out the pages across the room and then apply one color at a time - all the reds, then all the blues, then all the browns, etc. In this way he insured a tonal consistency and balance throughout the whole series, which could include as many as 60. Lawrence was meticulous in maintaining a high degree of quality control in his works, which included relying on the critical, evaluating eye of another painter - Gwendolyn Knight, whom he was married to for 59 years.
Lawrence became known for his use of rich and stunning colors and flat two-dimensional overlapping shapes which sometimes looked like they could peel right off the page. He was able to convey feelings and moods with the slouch or posture of a body and the action and energy of a larger scene with a whole cast of characters. While there was a certain stillness in his paintings - capturing a moment - there was also a lot of motion and restless force.
One reviewer wrote of his 1950 piece, "The Street," "The effect of the cadence of shredded patterns is an unexpected unity, a medley of dynamic design and poetic resonance."
Lawrence's artistic chronicle of Black people in the U.S. dealt with themes-like struggle, survival, and hope for an oppressed people. And he explored these themes in other works that went beyond the Black experience. For example, his wrenching "Hiroshima Series" done in the early 1980s, depicts-in sickly pinks and desiccated bodies-the nightmare of the U.S. nuclear bombing at Hiroshima.
Jacob Lawrence was a tireless, prolific artist for over six decades-and he was always broadening his horizons.
In 1962 he traveled to Nigeria for an exhibition of his "Migration" series, then returned in 1964 to live and work there for nearly a year, to lecture, teach and paint.
Throughout his career Lawrence shared his artistic experience and wisdom, teaching and lecturing at many different schools. In 1946, he started teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and until his retirement (from teaching) in 1986, he taught at many schools including the Pratt Institute in New York, the New School for Social Research, the Art Students League, the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and the University of Washington.
In 1999, Lawrence and his wife established the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation for the creation, presentation and study of American art, with a particular emphasis on work by African American artists. And there are now plans for the Foundation to establish a Jacob Lawrence Art Center in Harlem.
In 1997 Lawrence designed a 72-foot-long mosaic which is scheduled to be installed in the Times Square subway complex at Broadway and 42nd Street in 2001. And he was still painting until a few weeks before his death.
Even with an impressive and astounding body of work behind him, Lawrence was always looking to deepen the form, content and meaning of his work. In 1986 he said, "I still don't feel settled. I guess I want to add a further dimension to my work. I know I'm looking for something ... I'll continue looking for it the rest of my life." And in a 1994 interview he reiterated this restlessness, saying, "The search goes on for something else. I don't know what it is-some other dimension I still hope to acquire."
Jacob Lawrence has left us with a wonderful gift-a lifetime of art that is beautiful, engaging, and bold in its statements about society.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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