Jacob Lawrence, the prominent African American painter, was a man known for his ability to express the experiences of African Americans across the United States. His powerful style helped fuel the Harlem Renaissance and inspired many people to follow in his footsteps.
The Whatcom Museum recently acquired Lawrence’s “Builders,” a gouache-on-paper work painted in 1980. It is an example of his expressive, abstract style and aligns with many works created while living in Washington state. The museum plans to include it in an exhibition of new acquisitions in the future.
Born in Atlantic City on Sept. 7, 1917, Lawrence and his family moved to New York City when he was 13. In New York, Lawrence was exposed to the blossoming of African American culture, known as the Harlem Renaissance, and discovered his love for painting.
As described in an article by the Smithsonian Magazine, during his early years, Lawrence attended the Harlem Art Workshop and participated in after-school classes at the Utopia House. He studied under prominent black artists including sculptor Augusta Savage and Charles Alston, who shared a workspace with him. Lawrence’s unique style of bright colors, sharp lines and abstract shapes were also inspired by the streets of Harlem and his experiences in the neighborhood.
Lawrence’s works were also shaped by the discrimination he faced in the South while serving in the Coast Guard during World War II in Florida, and as an instructor for Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1946.
Through his artwork, Lawrence showcased the history of African Americans in U.S. history as well as the stories of prominent historical African Americans like Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass. Lawrence also created works about the civil rights movement.
His most prominent collection of work, The Migration Series (1941), described the mass movement of many African Americas from the south to the north after World War I as they searched for a life away from oppressive Jim Crow laws. Lawrence’s family was part of this migration.
In 1942, The Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington D.C. and the National Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased the 60-panel-series, making Lawrence one of the first African Americans to be showcased in a major museum.
Lawrence was also a teacher. In the 1930s, when African American history wasn’t taught in public schools, he traveled to schools around New York City to teach art and history. Later in his life he also taught at Pratt Institute, The New School, The Art Students League and Brandeis University. In 1971, Lawrence became a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. This was the last university that he worked for before retiring in 1986. He passed away in 2000.
The Whatcom Museum’s painting of Builders expresses the artist’s optimism for the inclusion of both African Americans and women in society. Lawrence himself perhaps summed up his work best in an article by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art:
“Most of my work depicts events from the many Harlems that exist throughout the United States. This is my genre. My surroundings. The people I know … the happiness, tragedies, and the sorrows of mankind … I am part of the black community, so I am the black community speaking.”
Colton Redtfeldt is marketing and public relations assistant at Whatcom Museum.
The non-profit Whatcom Museum is operated by the Whatcom Museum Foundation and the city of Bellingham. The Old City Hall building at 121 Prospect St. and the Lightcatcher Building at 250 Flora St. are open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays. The Family Interactive Gallery, located inside the Lightcatcher, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission, good for all sites in a day, is $10 general, $8 youth (6-17 years) and student, senior or military, $5 children (2-5 years). Memberships start at $50 and include free museum admission.
The museum offers a variety of programs and exhibitions about art, nature and Northwest history. Its collections contain more than 200,000 artifacts and art of regional importance, including a photographic archive. The museum is accredited nationally by the American Alliance of Museums and is a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate.