Kindred spirits at Northwest African American Museum
Few Northwest artists command as much respect and admiration as the late Jacob Lawrence and James W. Washington Jr., not only for the power...
Seattle Times art critic
Jacob Lawrence and James Washington Jr., "Making a Life/Creating a World," opens Saturday and continues through Aug. 18 at the Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle. Hours are 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and noon-4 p.m. Sundays. A second Lawrence/Washington exhibit will follow Sept. 1-Feb. 18, 2009 (206-518-6000 or www.naamnw.org).
Few Northwest artists command as much respect and admiration as the late Jacob Lawrence and James W. Washington Jr., not only for the power of their artwork but their dedication as community role models and mentors. It's fitting that an opening exhibition at the new Northwest African American Museum will focus on these two men, who came of age in totally different environments. Lawrence grew up in the cultural hothouse of the Harlem Renaissance in New York; Washington in rural, segregated Mississippi. Their artwork and sense of greater purpose eventually brought them together in Seattle as friends.
The exhibition "Making a Life/Creating a World" was organized by NAAM curator Barbara Earl Thomas but not yet installed when I talked with her recently at the new galleries. She emphasized that it's not intended to be an art show, per se. Instead, the material she selected, which includes tools and objects the artists used and lived with, is meant to help us understand the lives of these two artists, the hardships they faced, how their careers were nurtured by others and shaped by their environments — what she calls "a network of affiliations and cultural connections."
"Jacob was an observer. He never said this is what you should think: He just described it," said Thomas, who was friends with both men. "James really did come at [art] from a spiritual point of view. He looked at all different belief systems."
Yet one thing they held in common was a firm belief in their own direction as artists. Their work moves us because they were clearly compelled to do it, to communicate deep social or inner truths. Both Lawrence and Washington did the painful work of finding their authentic voice as artists, a hard journey that few accomplish and which in itself sets them apart. That task was multiplied hugely by the fact that they were black men in a country with deep racial divides and prejudices. They were trailblazers, creating opportunities and helping others along the path. We can all benefit by the work they did.
"His own way"
Lawrence was born in New Jersey in 1917 and moved to Harlem as a young teen. He began studying art after school at the Utopia House and the Harlem Art Workshop, where he got to know prominent figures in the Harlem Renaissance, including painter Charles Alston, poet Claude McKay and sculptor Augusta Savage. Alston noted the exceptional commitment of the young artist and realized it would be "a mistake to try to teach Jake. He was teaching himself, finding his own way. All he needed was encouragement and technical information."
With help from Savage, Lawrence joined the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project in 1938. He had his first solo show at the Harlem YMCA. Then he began a series of extraordinary paintings, tracing the historical migration of blacks from the South. He debuted the 60 panels of "The Migration of the Negro" series in 1941 at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan, the first African-American artist to be represented by a mainstream New York gallery. Fortune magazine published a color spread of 26 images from the show.
That year marked the real beginning for Lawrence: He became an art-world celebrity and also married his muse and life partner, the painter Gwendolyn Knight. The two joined the Northwest art community in 1971, when Lawrence accepted a position on the fine-art faculty at the University of Washington.
Lawrence has become a towering figure in American art history, and his work is sought after by major museums. His early "Migration" series is owned, half and half, by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. He died in Seattle in 2000; Knight in 2005. They left a $250,000 scholarship endowment to the UW art department and a legacy of artists who learned from them.
A Mexican detour
Becoming an artist was not as straightforward for Washington, a largely self-taught painter and sculptor who was born in 1911. His father, a minister, was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and disappeared when Washington Jr. was just a young boy. The event haunted him the rest of his life. "It's assumed to be one of those undocumented lynchings so prevalent in the South at that time," said Tim Detweiler, executive director of the James W. Washington and Janie Rogella Washington Foundation. "I don't think that question ever went away."
The young Washington apprenticed first to a shoe repairman, then, at 15, went to work as a deckhand on a Mississippi riverboat, but he nurtured an interest in art. By 1938 he was not only painting but teaching art for the WPA at an Alabama YMCA. He married Janie Rogella Miller in 1943, and the following year the two came west to Seattle.
Washington found wartime work at the Bremerton Naval Yard and lined up a show of his paintings at the Frederick and Nelson Little Gallery. His work was displayed alongside that of another promising young painter: Leo Kenney. Mark Tobey took an interest in the show, and Washington began attending Tobey's private classes and seeking out other prominent local artists. Soon, Washington's paintings began appearing at the Seattle Art Museum's Northwest Annual. It was after a trip to Mexico to meet acclaimed muralist Diego Rivera that Washington's work became overtly religious, turning from landscapes and interior spaces to more spiritual subject matter.
"The church played an incredible role in his early life, and a lot of things came from that connection," Detweiler said. "But after he began to read more and talk to Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, he seemed to open up his mind to a lot of ideas, philosophies and religions."
The Mexico trip also helped turn Washington to sculpture, the medium he would become known for. He had brought home a volcanic stone and felt compelled to carve something from it. "Instantly, in that same year, 1956, he does this little masterpiece, 'The Young Queen of Ethiopia.' " Detweiler said. "It is very intuitive to him. He doesn't study, he just goes after it."
Now "The Young Queen of Ethiopia," Washington's first bust carving, is in the collection of the Smithsonian.
That piece won't appear in "Making a Life/Creating a World," but we will see Washington's first carving, the one he did in 1956 with that Mexican volcanic stone titled "Young Boy of Athens," as well as a selection of other carvings dating up to the early 1980s. The paintings range from 1938 Mississippi scenes to images of Seattle's Pike Place Market, Mount Zion Church and views of Earth from Washington's first airplane trip in 1953. Most of the work is on loan from Washington's foundation; much of it has rarely been seen.
Lawrence's part of the exhibition includes the five history paintings of the "George Washington Bush Series," commemorating our state's first African-American settler. The series was commissioned in 1972 from Lawrence by the State of Washington and is seldom exhibited. Also on view will be an 18-foot enamel-on-steel mural Lawrence designed for the Kingdome, borrowed from King County's public-art collection. Other prints and paintings show a range of Lawrence's interests, from his symbolic "Builders" series to a poster design for 1976 Bumbershoot.
Washington and Lawrence were photographed in 1971 at their first public meeting. "They had a friendship. Lawrence wrote a beautiful forward to Washington's unpublished biography," Detweiler said. "They were on very good terms, and both passed away the same year ."
Even though the content of their work was so different, the two men joined in their devotion to community service and civil rights. Curator Thomas hopes that "Making a Life/Creating a World" will help the public appreciate their broader importance.
"It's really a good example of two ways of living in the world — honoring their community and showing a high level of achievement in their work."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
NEW - 7:04 PM
Toy-maker shifts gears into sculpting career
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.