Grand narrator of African-American life

Jacob Lawrence's visionary art resonates from one child of Harlem to another.


May 27, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

I cannot remember a time when I didn't know the paintings of Jacob Lawrence.

I grew up in Harlem in the 1950s, and Lawrence's epic series "The Migration of the Negro," which he completed in 1941, represented for me more than a historical and demographic event: It was the story of my own family and of practically everyone we knew. Lawrence's paintings were the visual narrative of our own experience, told in a language that, like the poetry of Langston Hughes, we understood instinctively.

So it was like encountering an old friend seeing "Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence" at Washington's Phillips Collection, which has mounted a major retrospective of the artist's work that opens today. In addition to the "Migration Series," an epic narrative consisting of 60 small tempera paintings on wood panels, the exhibition includes about 140 works, including Lawrence's earlier narrative series on Harriet Tubman, Toussaint L'Ouverture and John Brown as well as drawings, watercolors and prints spanning his entire career.

Lawrence, who died last year at the age of 82, was the first African-American artist to win wide recognition in the American art world and the most important painter to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance, the black artistic and cultural flowering that began in the 1920s.

His family moved to Harlem from Pennsylvania in 1930, just after the stock market crash had brought to a screeching halt the freewheeling era that witnessed Harlem's rise as what black folk called "The Negro Capital of the World." Lawrence grew up in the Depression that followed, and the memory of those hard times, and of his family's struggle to survive in the unfamiliar, often confusing new urban milieu, would shape both his development as an artist and the grand tapestry he unfolded in his paintings.

The sights of Harlem

As late as the 1950s, when I lived there, Harlem was itself a grand tapestry of peoples, colors, sights and sounds. My neighborhood, at West 147th Street and Broadway, was just a few blocks from the painter Charles Alston's studio at 306 W. 141st St., where Lawrence had studied as a young man.

That part of Harlem was home to people of color from every corner of the globe -- Southern migrants from North Carolina, like my parents; West Indians from Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Thomas and Barbados; Spanish-speaking folk from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba; French-speaking Haitians; Portuguese black Brazilians; students from all over Africa. New York's housing segregation had crammed us all together into that narrow sliver of Upper Manhattan called Harlem, where we listened to each others' music, admired each other's dancing and savored the exotic smells of each other's cooking. And despite the many barriers of language and culture between us, we knew one thing about each other that was true: we were all here because the places we came from were worse.

When people ask me what it was like back then, they often assume that because almost everyone was poor we were all miserable as well. But Harlem was exciting for a child growing up. It was filled with shops, stores, theaters, bars, nightclubs, bakeries, dry cleaners. Amsterdam Avenue still had cobblestone streets and a trolley line with overhead electric wires; the subways, both underground and elevated, went everywhere, and all the big avenues had bus lines, too. People dressed sharp to go out, or just to stroll along the street. You could sit in your front window overlooking the street and watch the passing parade for hours.

This was the visual environment that nurtured Lawrence from childhood -- that and the bright, decorative patterns of the rugs, quilts and blankets with which his mother, a domestic worker, tried to cheer up the family's humble Harlem apartment. When Lawrence was around 13, his mother sent him to a neighborhood after-school arts and crafts program, and the first things he learned to draw there were the geometric forms on the carpets and drapes he had grown up with.

WPA teachers

Charles Alston, who ran the after-school program, said that he never really taught Lawrence anything, that he simply let the boy explore at his own pace. But clearly he was aware of Lawrence's talent. When Alston became head of the WPA Harlem Art Workshop in 1932, Lawrence was one of his pupils, and when Alston moved his own studio to West 141st Street in 1934, he offered Lawrence a corner in the new space.

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