Augusta Savage’s Invitation to Study

“We step into another world when the smiling face of Miss. Savage welcomes us into her sanctuary of industry and dreams …….. !” In 1934, Linden LaRue Perrine wrote a report of a visit to the basement studio of the sculptor Augusta Savage. Two years before, Savage opened her Studio of Arts and Crafts at 163 West 143rd in Harlem, offering free art classes for young people in the neighborhood. Written in swooping, cursive handwriting in a handmade book, Perrine’s report is both an homage to Savage and a poetic meditation on study. The student describes moving through the studio of sculptors-in-training:

We turn to the right and discover a room heavy with the atmosphere of creative art! Everywhere the figures of busy sculptors are hovering about their creations. […] We see the work in many stages of progress. The hammer blows of a wood mallet are chipping away much hardwood from a large table leg. Eventually the hidden beauty–the spirit of the wood will stand before our eyes. The sharp chisel seems controlled by a divine power.

Throughout her life, Savage transformed her basements and living rooms into an ongoing workshop where people could create alongside one another. Perrine’s book, now located in the Augusta Savage Papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, offers a rare glimpse into one of the many sites of gathering that Augusta Savage hosted in the 1930s and 1940s. As Perrine writes, Savage helped build “another world” in which anyone passing through could pick up a chisel, mallet, or paintbrush and enter the shared search for “hidden beauty.” Her studio was an open invitation to collectively hover, hammer, and join in messy and unfinished study.

Figure 1. Augusta Savage

Savage’s studio is part of a “whole, varied, alternative history of thought” that Stefano Harney and Fred Moten think about together in their book The Undercommons: Fugitive Practice and Black Study. Throughout their work, Harney and Moten look outside and beyond institutions and classrooms to consider the idea of study as a kind of sociality and gathering that is always in motion. Harney suggests that one way to think about study is as “the opposite of an exam,” a kind of collective conversation that has no endpoint, that does not involve mastering knowledge or graduating. To join in study involves joining others and remaining in the “structure of rough draft,” where questions, music-making, dancing, walking, art-making are perpetually unfinished: “It’s the ongoing-ness, the roughness, the drafted- or draftiness of it that I think is really important.” Moten elaborates on study by way of the work of José Muñoz and Masao Miyoshi, which he calls an “open installation, the thing you live in and play in and wear and are.” Harney and Moten point out that study is happening all around, all the time—in living rooms, in basements, on rooftops, during lunch breaks, before and after musical performances—and they invite their readers to look for and join this open installation. Augusta Savage’s basement studio is an expansive, unfolding part of this large and varied history.

In recent years, Sharif Bey, Jeffreen M. Hayes, Kirsten Pai Buick, Stephanie Anne Johnson, and others have called attention to Augusta Savage’s capacious life and work as an artist, educator, and organizer. Two exhibitions—one at the Schomburg Center in 1989 and one at the Cummer Museum in 2018—have featured her sculptures and the projects she formed in and around her artistic practice. This valuable scholarship and curatorial work, which draws much-deserved attention to Savage and her life story, opens up space to further consider Savage as a thinker and practitioner of study. Throughout her life, Savage constantly refused dominant paradigms of white cultural institutions to instead create sculptures and host gatherings that celebrated black creative life in its many and unlimited forms, textures, and sounds.


Augusta Savage’s studio was always a site of sociality—her sculptures an elaboration of an ongoing, polyvocal conversation, which reverberated in many directions. The artist welcomed people to stop by her studio, and a handful of visitor accounts are collected in newspaper clippings in the Augusta Savage papers. One journalist, writing in the New Amsterdam News in 1937, describes entering the studio to find Savage “in a fever of activity,” taking “cold mediums” and infusing them with live-ness and animacy: “her creations are fashioned out of stone, wood, plaster, clay and marble. In such cold mediums she symbolizes the impressions she gains from a mood, a snatch of conversation….” Which is to say, the work is always only part of an unfolding study, and this study also includes the atmosphere of the room in which the work is made. Another journalist, Clara Ash, recalls entering Savage’s studio in November 1937 to find the artist engrossed in her sculpture-in-progress, politely asking her guest: “would you mind very much if I continued my work?” Waiting to begin the interview, Ash watched the artist, entranced: “for awhile, only the song of the saw was heard.”

The sonic, conversational quality of Savage’s work is most vivid in an awe-inspiring piece she created for the 1939 World’s Fair, Lift Every Voice and Sing—a chorus of black singers assembled in the shape of a harp. In 1937, she was commissioned to make a sculpture that celebrated “The American Negro’s Contribution to Music” and Savage chose the 1905 song of the same name written by her friend James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson as her inspiration. In May We Forever Stand, Imani Perry describes how “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the Black national anthem, “not only journeyed with migrants and strivers but it also gave voice to their aspirations and became a part of the canon upon which the artists and intellectuals drew as they boldly asserted their blackness.” In the way that the song “gave voice” to migrants and strivers, Savage’s sculpture gave its own shape and texture to the song, a further elaboration and resounding of the music.

Figure 2. Augusta Savage with unfinished Lift Every Voice and Sing

In the two years before the World’s Fair, a handful of photographs were taken of Augusta Savage in her basement studio at work on the unfinished Lift Every Voice and Sing. Savage stands in the midst of the chorus she is bringing about, both singer and conductor, and sound seems to burst forth, the singers already looking around and casting out their song in multiple directions. This harp-in-progress feels like a dress rehearsal or jam session, a warm-up behind stage in preparation for the performances to come, with the singers trying out their voices. Savage would eventually combine the two pieces—a hand in the left foreground holding seven singers, and the four singers in the right background—into a statue rising over sixteen feet.

When it was unveiled, Savage’s harp became one of the most photographed and popular works at the 1939 World’s Fair, garnering widespread acclaim and attention from fair-goers. Savage was aware of the fair’s ties to colonization and imperialism, and deliberately used the commission to create a work that would refuse institutional and white supremacist logics, presenting a different kind of monument that was carrying on and sending forth a conversation already in motion. The lyrics of the song were included with the sculpture: “Til now we stand at last // Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.” The word “cast” suggests a pouring forth—an emitting of light, an offering out and to. Instead of creating a work that sought to ossify or capture the song, Savage’s interpretation of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” picks up the music and casts off its own gleam and light, a sonic offering and amplification of black art.

Lift Every Voice and Sing was demolished when the fair ended. Facing material limitations, Savage could not afford to cast her statue in bronze or secure a more permanent home for this monument and, according to Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, the work “was smashed by bulldozers demolishing the fair’s buildings—an event that went unnoticed in the press.” The heartbreaking dismantling of the completed harp has left later artists, admirers, and scholars to imagine the emotive and affective power of one of Savage’s most ambitious works. Yet by turning to photographs of the unfinished piece and hundreds of representations of the work circulated widely on postcards and souvenir miniatures, a certain kind of study emerges. As John Cage writes, “each something is a celebration of the nothing that supports it,” and each of these postcards and miniatures and photographs of Savage in her studio celebrates the before and the beyond that were are always a part of Lift Every Voice and Sing—sites where the sculpture, which was itself a version of the song, was and continues to sing, refusing completeness.

Figure 3. Postcard of Lift Every Voice and Sing issued by 1939 World’s Fair

The irrevocable loss of the harp makes room to think by way of Augusta Savage about the relationship between monumentality and study. The destruction of her work was nothing new; throughout her life, Savage repeatedly faced material constraints and systemic racism that made it difficult to make, exhibit, sell, and cast her sculptures. Earlier in her career, a prestigious fellowship to study in Europe was rescinded when organizers learned she was a black woman. In a 1923 letter to the editor in the New World, Savage analyzed the crushing feeling of navigating racist institutions, reflecting specifically on education:

I hear so many complaints to the effect that Negroes do not take advantage of the opportunities offered them. Well, one of the reasons why more of my people do not go for higher education is that as soon as one of us gets his head up above the crowd there are millions of feet ready and waiting to step on that head and crush it back again.

Animated by anger and frustration at the white-dominated educational and cultural institutions that only accepted black art on their own terms, Savage advocated for black artists to get the resources they needed to make the work they wanted to make. As Bearden and Henderson write, Savage “was one of the first black American artists to challenge the art establishment head-on,” and she risked a lot—exclusion from institutions, shows, exhibitions, and funding sources—to be a vocal leader in this fight against the art establishment and create opportunities for black artists around her.

Grappling with what she saw as an inevitable ephemerality of her sculptures due to material restraints and structural racism, Savage articulated her own collective vision of monumentality that refused the logics of white cultural institutions. Instead of viewing monumentality as the creation of permanent, individual sculptures, Savage repeatedly argued that her monument existed in the unfolding work of her students. “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting,” she says in a 1935 article in Metropolitan Magazine, “but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be their work. No one could ask for more than that.” Savage’s monumentality is an invitation to study—the welcoming into and hosting of ongoing spaces for dreaming, shaping, and creating.

Figure 4. Harlem Community Art Center Sculpture Class

A handful of photographs from Savage’s workshops at the Harlem Community Art Center, a community art space for children and adults that she founded in 1937 and ran with Gwendolyn Bennett, show her studio filled with students in the midst of sculpting. This image, taken by photographer Berenice Abbott, shows three students shaping and scraping works-in-progress. Like the chorus in Lift Every Voice and Sing, the children, each at various heights, focus their energy in different directions. Although Savage is not in the image, it’s easy to imagine her in the room, moving about and talking with students about their work, or even working alongside them. “We really have a lot of native talent in Harlem,” Savage stated in a New York Tribune interview two years earlier, discussing her basement studio, “and what I want to do is to teach the essentials without making them bound down with academic tradition which will spoil the freshness of their work. I hope that I can make this school a permanent one, as there is a crying need for it.” Here, Savage simultaneously called for the formation of black art spaces and free schools while refusing institutional logics (i.e., the “academic tradition”) of dominant institutions. Resources, materials, and classrooms and workshops are necessary. Yet to offer these without expectation, without predetermined ends, was one of her greatest gifts.

Savage wanted to create spaces where black students could play, could move, could dream, and she encouraged curiosities that extended far beyond art-making. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Courier, Savage describes an eleven-year-old named George Frost “who paints only when the spirit moves him: and when not painting prefers to be out playing with the neighborhood children, or skating.” Although this boy was often outside, “one day when the mood to paint was upon him, he came in, without speaking to anyone, took his paper and paints, and set to work,” creating “one of the most striking of designs,” two fish in “a symphony of deep and light blue.” For Savage, study did not end when students left the studio, but was happening already in all aspects of their lives. Savage wanted to create a capacious environment that let students play, let them find their own rhythms and movements, where students weren’t taught to become artists, but were recognized as artists when they walked through the door. Linden LaRue Perrine ends the 1934 book report on the visit to the Savage Studio by observing the unfolding of ability all around: “some are creating small statues of the human figure—some are making animals and some are making abstract designs that express their mood.” An enactment of monumentality in motion, Savage transformed her studio, and so many of the spaces around her, into “a haven in which to grow in the creation of beauty.”


Laura Nelson

Laura Nelson seeks to celebrate and co-organize spaces of study and gathering. She currently lives in New York City.