Adversity was his teacher, and artist Lawrence learned well

January 05, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

For most people, as the saying goes, life is what happens while you're making other plans. Far rarer are those like painter Jacob Lawrence, who know what they want to do and do it.

"I would say that I was fully committed about the age of 15 or 16. I didn't know how I would support myself, but I always felt I would work with color. I didn't sit down and say, 'This is a commitment,' but I never thought of anything else other than working to support my art -- picking up laundry, delivering laundry, selling newspapers."

By the time he was 20 he was at work on a group of paintings about Haitian leader Toussaint L'Ouverture, the first of the successive series of paintings on historical figures for which he has become world famous. By the time he was 23 he had completed two more series, on Maryland natives Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, now being shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Maybe he was so single-minded because, like the slave Douglass who escaped to become an eloquent abolitionist and the slave Tubman who led 300 others out of bondage, Lawrence had adversity as a teacher. Born to poverty, he grew up in Harlem in the Great Depression of the 1930s, in a home without a father and with a mother whose life was a constant struggle to provide.

Such an upbringing could have produced bitterness and anger. But that doesn't come through Lawrence's paintings; what comes through, rather, is a sense of struggle upward, of hope and triumph. And today the 74-year-old Lawrence looks back in anything but anger.

"I don't know anyone who was bitter," he says. "Despite our parents having very tough times, younger people like myself knew community support. We had the library. We had art centers, and these gave us quite a bit of support. And despite tTC the fact that the country was going through a very traumatic economic experience, as a result the Roosevelt administration set up these various art centers throughout the country. They had a tremendous impact in the arts, and I think that was one of the things that carried me through."

From the community, too, he took his subject matter. In those days, people like Douglass and Tubman "were outside the curriculum, but they would come through the black teachers and the librarians." And there were "the street orators, people who would get up on the corners and talk about all the injustices. The religiously inclined, the political, Communists, [Marcus] Garvey and the back-to-Africa movement. They were very much involved with the ethnic and would talk about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

"They [heroes such as Douglass and Tubman] were so important in our lives. You couldn't help being told about these people, like you learned about Lincoln. I was brought up with this."

For Lawrence, however -- and for those who see his paintings -- these are not just stories of black heroes by a black person for black people. "What attracted me to these subjects was that they gave us courage and stimulated us. I don't think this is unique to blacks, I think it's true of the human condition. The symbol that I used is the symbol that I know -- it's black -- but I would like my symbol to be universal."

It has been remarked often that the style and format of Lawrence's art developed early, quickly and permanently, and while there have been some changes over the years, they remain basically the same.

The style -- those semi-abstract works in which areas of flat, bold colors establish patterns that help to draw the viewer from picture to picture through the series -- has been characterized as many things, from a sort of sophisticated naivete to cubist-rooted. Critics have cited influences ranging from Giotto to Picasso and Matisse.

As a teen-ager, both in his own community and elsewhere in New York, Lawrence was exposed to a great deal of art, not only from books but also from trips to such places as the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art.

Today he recognizes many influences -- Giotto for "the structure of his canvases," for instance -- but also African art. "People in the black community were very much aware of the contributions of African sculpture. By the time there was a show of West African sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in the mid-1930s, we already knew about it from reproductions."

There were influences closer to home, too: "In retrospect I realize how important the older people in the art center were." And there were influences in the home. "My mother [was] like so many people of her age [who] decorated their homes with all sorts of fabric, imitation Persian rugs, wallpaper, everything full of color. And the Harlem community was alive with color."

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