Promised Lands and a Great American Prophet

Jacob Lawrence, “The Card Game,” 1953, tempura on board: Gift of Dr. Walter O. and Mrs. Linda J. Evans, SCAD Museum of Art Permanent Collection

The Great Migration of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North between 1900 and 1970 remains one of the defining exoduses of world history, and artist Jacob Lawrence is both a part of that history and one of its chief chroniclers. The many stories of that epochal movement took place on farms and in tenements, on country roads and city streets, and perhaps most importantly, on railroads — including the depot where now stands the SCAD Museum of Art. The museum stands on sacred earth, where thousands of black Southerners once awaited the trains that would take them to a better life, which is why Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence at the SCAD Museum of Art is the most historically important exhibition in the history of the university.

More than a decade ago, I developed a friendship with Dr. Walter Evans, one of the nation’s most prominent collectors of African American art, who had just moved from Detroit back to his childhood home of Savannah — coming full circle from his own migration North. At the time, what is now the SCAD Museum of Art was but a ruin, a dilapidated array of brick sheds comprising the oldest extant railroad depot in the U.S., sitting at the western edge of downtown Savannah. For some time, I had been mulling over how the university should utilize this site for the benefit of students and had begun to envision creating a contemporary museum within the few fragments of wall remaining. There seemed to be a poetry in the creation of a museum for transporting experiences in this space that had once transported human bodies and souls to new promised lands.

At the same time, Dr. Evans had been thinking about how to share his collection with the wider world, to help advance art education and the story of the African American experience among students and the nation. Through our friendship, we saw how a new SCAD Museum of Art might serve and marry both of these visions. Dr. Evans and I dreamed that the SCAD Museum of Art would be a place to educate students and the public about great art, about the transcendent spirit of artists and their will to manifest better realities for all through the imagination. Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence deftly expresses the power of one to influence many — and the power of many to influence a single artist.

This exhibition fills three galleries of the SCAD Museum of Art, making it spatially one of the grandest exhibitions since the museum’s opening in 2011. In total, the show represents a supremely intertextual gesture, where the SCAD curatorial team, led by Storm Janse van Rensburg, has gathered together artists that influenced Lawrence, and works influenced by him. At the center of this great convergence is Lawrence himself, and the prophetic power of his work.

Students and visitors have much to learn from Lawrence’s unmistakable oeuvre. First, always first, is his use of color: bold primaries, reds, yellows, blues. His shadows are solid black, just as a Laurentian moon is a flat golden button in a doorway. The applications of color are almost cartoon-like, somewhere between Piet Mondrian and the Saturday morning cartoons of yesteryear. His iconic 1970 portrait of Jesse Jackson for TIME magazine is a perfect example: bright red and gold, deep black and brown, bold shades for a bold figure. There’s a joy and vivacity in the color, too. In Library Series: The Schomburg, part of the Evans Collection at SCAD, the liveliness in the faces of the library patrons is amplified by the striking colors of the books they carry and read. In another Evans Collection work, Genesis Creation Sermon, the zeal of the preacher is consecrated by the radiating colors of the sanctuary, the congregants, and his bright azure regalia.

I am especially moved by a third work in the Evans Collection, with a significant presence in this exhibition: Lawrence’s 1953 tempura painting, The Card Game. A wave of cards, diamonds, spades, clovers, and hearts cascade across an intense red checkered tablecloth as two couples hold the hands they’ve been dealt. The men wear smart jackets, the women, vivid blue and green dresses, glittering jewelry. Behind everything a brilliant blue wall adds dimension and depth. White curtains frame the edge of the painting with bold lines that accentuate their folds and draw eyes to the game. And yet, this painting is no mere modernist investigation into color and formal composition; it is a story. Here we witness a scene common to any community, the fellowship of friends around a game. We hear their gossip, conversation, laughter — and there, on the face of the player in the center of the painting, is the unmistakable countenance of melancholy. Beautiful people, arrayed in beautiful attire, playing a game of leisure, and yet sadness cannot be escaped.

In all of Lawrence’s work, just as in the work he has influenced over the decades, story elbows its way past the formal elements to take center stage. Unlike other modern painters, who eschewed narrative content for more formal concerns, Lawrence had a story to tell, painting the quotidian lives of black Americans, their suffering, celebrating, worshipping, eating, reading, living, dying, dancing, praying. Most instructive for viewers is how he used the complex visual language of abstract expressionism to tell these stories of the mundane terrors and joys of black life in early 20th century America. Students would do well to heed his example: One needn’t be beholden to a school or movement. Borrow from every style that moves you, in order to tell the story you are called to tell.

Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence tells a story, too: That of how one artist shapes, and was shaped by, history and environment. Through the deft curatorial hand of the SCAD Museum of Art, we see how Gwendolyn Lawrence influenced and responded to the influence of her husband in her own work, and how his adolescence in Harlem’s famous Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the 135th Street Branch Library shaped his lifelong concerns as a painter, through communion with important figures such as Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Augusta Savage, Charles Alston, and Henry Bannarn. These relationships are palpable in the exhibition.

Lawrence’s work continues to shape contemporary art and artists, as we can see in the striking contemporary works of the exhibition, including Barbara Earl Thomas (a former student of Lawrence), Derrick Adams, Faith Ringgold, and others. Lawrence’s influence is unmistakable in the Hank Willis Thomas sculpture, Untitled, inspired by iconography from runaway slave advertisements, which stands on the threshold between two galleries, arresting visitors with oscillations of color — and in Kara Walker’s epic Four Idioms on Negro Art #4 Primitivism, which covers the entire wall of one gallery at the museum, a tapestry of black, blue, and human pain. Lawrence’s love of bold primaries lives on, as does his urgent need to remind the public of the reality of black lives across American history.

This exhibition marks a new movement in the story of America, the completing of a circle that must remain unbroken. As the Times writes, in their review of the show, “Today’s migrations move in a different direction.” That direction points back down South, a destination where every year, more black Americans are moving than at any other time in the last 100 years. SCAD and the SCAD Museum of Art are proud to help tell the story of Jacob Lawrence and his profound influence — to retell, and by retelling, to reverse the narrative of black lives in America.

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Paula Wallace is the founder and president of SCAD, a private, nonprofit, accredited university with 100-plus academic degree programs and locations in Atlanta, Hong Kong, Lacoste, Savannah, and online. SCAD is one of the largest arts universities in the world, with a retention rate of 85 percent, more than 21 percent higher than the national average, and an employment rate of 98 percent for SCAD graduates.

Designer. Author. President and Founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) || http://scad.edu || http://instagram.com/paulaswallace