Born to the family of a conservative Methodist minister in Green Cove Springs, Florida, Savage exhibited a passion and a talent for art from an early age, in particular for molding objects out of clay. But her father discouraged her creations through corporal punishment, claiming they were sinful. “Father licked me five or six times a week and almost whipped all the art out of me,” Savage recalled in interviews.
Savage put aside her art and got married. Shortly after she gave birth to her only child, her husband passed away. After another marriage and an inspiring encounter with a local potter, Savage left her husband and joined the Great Migration, heading to New York in 1921. There, she reinvented herself, shaving 10 years off her age, referring to her then-14-year-old daughter as her sister, and contributing her talents to the creation of a new Black cultural identity during the Harlem Renaissance.
Her artistic career was marked by incredible highs and lows. Savage battled poverty and racism, both of which limited her opportunities. Yet at the same time, as Drs. Berry and Gross wrote, “Augusta’s life was steeped in the blossoming African American cultural revolution taking place.” She wrote poetry and hosted Black literary luminaries such as Dorothy West, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston in her overcrowded apartment, while sculpting busts of people in her community as well as leaders like Marcus Garvey.
Savage’s greatest professional accomplishments include traveling to study in Paris, being the first Black artist elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, and receiving a commission to create art for the 1939 New York World’s Fair (a 16-foot-high creation entitled Lift Every Voice, which was the inspiration for what became known as the Black National Anthem of the same name).
Savage’s story is defined by her talent, struggle, passion, self-determination and celebration of Blackness through her art. “Her artwork, while it was very much rooted in the experience of Black people, wasn’t just about struggle and oppression,” says Dr. Gross. “It’s about embracing who we are in a much more expansive way and not just in resistance to white people.”
The ups and downs of Savage’s life are an equally important piece of her legacy, according to Dr. Gross. “She’s a perfect model for showing how the kinds of progress that Black women make isn’t linear — it ebbs and flows. That, for me, is a testament to our humanity.”
Image credit: Archives of American Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons