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Telling History in Brushstrokes

Artist Jacob Lawrence talks about his 60-year career and his narrative paintings

JACOB LAWRENCE, the preeminent African-American painter, came to artistic maturity in the 1930s. He inherited the creative and political spirit of the Harlem Renaissance.

At the age of 22, Mr. Lawrence earned a scholarship to New York's American Artist School. At 27, he was given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Lawrence was among the first black artists to be represented by the prestigious Downtown Gallery in New York. He taught at the avant-garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. At 76, he holds more honorary doctorates than he can count, and, until his retirement, he was Professor Emeritus of Art at Washington University in Seattle.

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Lawrence's work has the quality of a tale passed down from generation to generation. His pure style produces a sense of wonder and draws subtly on everything from African to slave folk art, from Expressionism to social realism. This mixture is filtered through Lawrence's genuine humanitarian motives and a sophisticated command of art's techniques and history.

Two series of his have been traveling separately to museums around the country: ``The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of Narrative Paintings 1938-40'' (see Monitor review, Sept. 15, 1992), and ``The Migration Series (1941).'' The first features 63 paintings of biographic scenes. The second comprises 60 panels that depict black migration from the segregated South to the North.

Speaking from his home in Washington state, Lawrence warmly recalled his childhood, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and chronicled a career spanning nearly 60 years.

Does your historical work require research or imagination?

I do a tremendous amount of factual research about the people or events I paint. The trick is to learn the facts thoroughly and then go beyond the facts to convey visually the heart and the expressive power of the characters.

The Douglass-Tubman pieces were done during the WPA years. What made that era so valuable?

The Depression was a grand equalizer.... One of the federal programs was to hire established artists to work beside younger artists decorating public buildings, making murals and small canvas paintings. The hardest-hit communities were the urban poor, the blacks and minorities, so they were the ones who participated. I earned about $23 a month to produce a fixed number of paintings. That was a lot of money. I felt like a paid professional.

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So, in one of America's leanest economic times, blacks, women, and other minorities found their way into the typically closed area of art?

One of those happy ironies.

What do you remember most about those days?

I'd have to say the government-sponsored WPA Harlem Art Workshops. At the workshop, the finest black minds of the time met. I was a young fellow taking classes right alongside older artists like Claude McKay, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes. Augusta Savage was a fine sculptor and a caring art teacher. What I received there in terms of intellectual stimulation no art school could have given me.

Were any of those artists models for your work?

People like Savage and Romare Bearden influenced me because of their personal power and integrity, not their art. My mother raised us alone, she was working several jobs, and we were barely getting by. Sensing that I might have to give up art to work more, Savage got me the job with the WPA.

When did you know you were an artist?

I cannot remember when I wasn't making art; I knew that art was what I wanted to do before I was a teenager.

Was that a reasonable aspiration in your situation?

My mother was very concerned with practicality. She hoped I would go into some civil-service job. Again I have to thank the coincidence of the Depression. If a black young man had wanted to be an artist a few decades earlier or a few decades later, there would have been resistance. But because the Public Art Project mobilized the black creative consciousness and provided stipends for materials, gave studio space, and allowed dialogue between the most provocative black minds, I wasn't an oddity.

Your work deals with racial and political injustice. Would you say you make black art?

I would call it social realism. Like so many of the artists that were at work in New York in the '30s, I was painting what I saw.... It was a world of the poor and the worker, of racial tensions and racial pride, and that's what we realists tried and try now to capture. I wouldn't call that black art per se - the same phenomenon was going on with the Mexican muralists like [Jose Clemente] Orozco and [Diego] Rivera.

But your work has been more historical than contemporary; you've done series on the abolitionists Tubman and Douglass, on the life of John Brown. How is that social realism?

In every way, really. There was no official black history in our school books - that came much later in the 1970s. But on the streets of Harlem, at our dinner tables and our youth centers, stories of black courage and integrity were told and retold and made up part of daily experience.

Who told these stories?

Whether it was your uncle or the librarian or the third-grade teacher, we discussed these events. Many of the Harlem blacks my age had parents who were part of the migration of Southern blacks to the North. Many older people in Harlem had experienced firsthand the brutal treatment and riots when blacks tried to make new lives in crowded urban cities outside the South. My own folks came to the North from the South so these stories were real and immediate for me....

With their emotional edge, your images have been likened to German Expressionism.

Yes, I hear this quite a lot. I have to tell you that the style I work in now is the same style I have worked in since I began to make art. It has maybe gained maturity and refinement with my sophistication as an artist, but if you look back at my earliest works you'll [see] the same style from the first time I picked up pigments and a pencil. I looked closely at artists like Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz - he taught at the Art Students League. But I viewed them as someone appreciating art, not as someone being influenced.

Your work is rendered in flat, colorful shapes having an almost childlike, cut-out simplicity. Some critics link your style to Cubism. Is that accurate?

You know, the very beauty of art is that everyone has the right to see what they see in it. But again, I'd have to say that I never actually looked at Cubism. I had been painting this way long before I was exposed to Modernism. If you think about it, you could almost call children's art or African art Cubist, and they didn't look at Picasso. Children pare things down to the emotional and formal essentials, images aren't edited by logic but are laid down directly, powerfully, in their simplest form.

Why do you paint in series?

That began with the ``Toussaint'' series I made in 1937. I saw a play by [W.E.B.] Du Bois on Toussaint, the Haitian slave who liberated Haiti from French rule and began the first black republic. There was no way to tell everything I researched, or to unfold that narrative, in one or two canvases. Since we had so little written black history, I used images to tell stories about my people and about themes of courage in general.

* The final stop for ``The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series'' is the Tacoma (Wash.) Art Museum, March 8 to May 29. ``The Migration Series'' continues at the Milwaukee (Wisc.) Art Museum until March 20; it travels to Portland (Ore.) Art Museum, April 19 to June 12; Birmingham (Ala.) Museum of Art, July 10 to Sept. 4; St. Louis Art Museum, Sept. 30 to Nov. 27; and Museum of Modern Art in New York, Jan. 11 to April 11, 1995.

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