Jacob Lawrence was a great man and a great artist. We met at the Downtown Gallery many years ago. Jake received countless honors and encountered much success since those early days—and as his comrade and buddy of sixty-five years, I’ve always felt that he had a great story to tell and he told it well, not to be deterred by anybody. When abstract expressionism became the tenor of the fifties, Jake never wavered from his own personal inspirations. The drama of the human condition of black Americans, a basic element in his work, brought him national recognition, and although Jake did not see himself as a crusader, ultimately his work stood as a tribute for all of us concerned about the struggle to end human suffering.
Jake was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1917, to Jacob and Rose Lawrence who had migrated there from South Carolina and Virginia, respectively. There were successive moves to Easton, Pennsylvania, then to Philadelphia and, after Jake’s father had left the family, to New York City’s Harlem, where his mother supported Jake and his brother and sister as a cleaning woman. This final move was to prove a formative influence on Jake’s life and art. In an after-school program called Utopia Children’s House, he was taught to draw and paint, mainly scenes of life in Harlem, by the artist Charles Alston. He was awestruck by the vitality and rhythm of Harlem, and his early art education, influenced by other mentors Augusta Savage and Henry Bannarn, encouraged what became his lifelong modernist use of rich color and elemental shapes.
Jake’s interest in African-American history led to paintings of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, and to the creation of the epic sixty-panel narrative piece, The Migration of the Negro, which Edith Halpert showcased in her Downtown Gallery in 1941, when Jake was just 24 years old. The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Modern Art now jointly own the piece.
In spite of his precocious career beginnings, Jake struggled financially, to keep his mother and siblings afloat. He worked several part-time jobs while scrambling to finish his painting series.
His friend Vincent Smith has spoken of Jake’s “long and glorious life that was filled with many friends.” Throughout his lifetime he was to receive a steady stream of grants, fellowships, public commissions, and honorary doctorates, and yet his personal hurdles were considerable. Jake’s sister and brother died young; he battled depression; and he withstood racial inequalities. His work was the constant in his life.
Elizabeth Hutton Turner, in an essay from the book, Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, reminds us of Jake’s prolific output: “Between 1937 and 1941 Lawrence created more than 170 paintings in series depicting nearly two hundred years of history—or, rather history as biography of the black race in America.” His later paintings covered many other subjects—war, mental illness, recreation, integration, non-violent protest, manual labor, athletics, theater, community, and biblical themes. He worked with other media—print, mural, and drawing—but always returned to painting. In the last year of his life, at the age of eighty-two, Jake’s exhibition, Games, opened in Seattle.
Jake taught for many years at various art schools in and around New York City until he was enticed to the west coast in 1971 by the University of Washington in Seattle, where he taught for twelve years. He remained in Seattle with his beloved and beautiful Gwendolyn, the artist to whom he was married for fifty-nine years, until his death in 2000. When he died, Toni Morrison wrote, “Jacob Lawrence seized beauty—whether it lay in an environment of heartbreak, survival or triumph. He seized beauty, manhandled it and made us know it too. He saw the body’s music in common labor. In pattern, juxtaposition of color, curve and line, he translated intricate activities and gestures of lyric simplicity into revelation, into rapture. No romance leaps from his canvases to seduce us. No easy sentiment drips from his brush. The brilliance and the precision of his work are clear, up-front, assertive, brooking no debate, making no plea.”
When I think of Jake now, I remember his many solo exhibitions in New York and I remember being struck—amazed—by the everlasting kind of energy he showed, right up into his last years. Jake was funny, unassuming, and wise. There aren’t many artists like him. I’d just like to add that it’s an honor for me to do this. Thank you.