Dr. Wilda Reviews: American Artist Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series at SAM

12 Feb

Moi joined the press preview of American Artist Jacob Lawrence’s series “The Migration Series” which was exhibited in it’s entirely from the collections of The Museum of Modern Art and The Phillips Collection at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Rarely, has the entire collection been seen. The series explores the migration of African Americans from the South to the North. Here are the details:

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series
Sat Jan 21 – Sun Apr 23 2017
Seattle Art Museum
Third Floor Galleries

The History Chanel describes the Great Migration:

After the post-Civil War Reconstruction period ended in 1876, white supremacy was largely restored across the South, and the segregationist policies known as Jim Crow soon became the law of the land. Southern blacks were forced to make their living working the land as part of the sharecropping system, which offered little in the way of economic opportunity, especially after a boll weevil epidemic in 1898 caused massive crop damage across the South. And while the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) had been officially dissolved in 1869, it continued underground after that, and intimidation, violence and even lynching of black southerners were not uncommon practices in the Jim Crow South.

Did You Know?

Around 1916, when the Great Migration began, a factory wage in the urban North was typically three times more than what blacks could expect to make working the land in the rural South.   

After World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, industrialized urban areas in the North, Midwest and West faced a shortage of industrial laborers, as the war put an end to the steady tide of European immigration to the United States. With war production kicking into high gear, recruiters enticed African Americans to come north, to the dismay of white Southerners. Black newspapers–particularly the widely read Chicago Defender–published advertisements touting the opportunities available in the cities of the North and West, along with first-person accounts of success.


By the end of 1919, some 1 million blacks had left the South, usually traveling by train, boat or bus; a smaller number had automobiles or even horse-drawn carts. In the decade between 1910 and 1920, the black population of major Northern cities grew by large percentages, including New York (66 percent) Chicago (148 percent), Philadelphia (500 percent) and Detroit (611 percent). Many new arrivals found jobs in factories, slaughterhouses and foundries, where working conditions were arduous and sometimes dangerous. Female migrants had a harder time finding work, spurring heated competition for domestic labor positions.

Aside from competition for employment, there was also competition for living space in the increasingly crowded cities. While segregation was not legalized in the North (as it was in the South), racism and prejudice were widespread. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared racially based housing ordinances unconstitutional in 1917, some residential neighborhoods enacted covenants requiring white property owners to agree not to sell to blacks; these would remain legal until the Court struck them down in 1948…. http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration

Lawrence’s 60 panels tell the story about this movement of African American people and culture.

The Phillips Collection provides a concise biography of Mr. Lawrence:

JACOB LAWRENCE (1917–2000)
A celebrated painter, storyteller, and interpreter of the African-American experience, Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City in 1917 to a couple who had moved from the rural South to find a better life in the North. After their parents separated, Lawrence and his two younger siblings lived in settlement houses and foster homes in Philadelphia until their mother could support them in New York. He came to New York in 1930, at the age of thirteen, and quickly discovered art as a means of expression. Lawrence’s education in art was both informal—observing the activity and rhythms of the streets of Harlem—and formal, in after-school community workshops at Utopia House and later at the Harlem Art Workshop. At both centers he was able to study with the prominent artist, Charles Alston, and in the course of his work, he became immersed in the cultural activity and fervor of the artists and writers who led the Harlem Renaissance, Alston among them. Lawrence received a scholarship to the American Artists School, and he began to gain some notice for his dramatic and lively portrayals of both contemporary scenes of African-American urban life as well as historical events, all of which he depicted in crisp shapes, bright, clear colors, dynamic patterns, and through revealing posture and gestures. Lawrence’s mother had hoped he would choose a career in civil service, but members of the creative community, including poet Claude McKay and sculptor Augusta Savage, encouraged him to become an artist. He was painting, he said, “a portrait of myself,” in his portraits of the Harlem community. In 1938, Lawrence had his first solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA and started working in the easel painting division of the WPA Federal Art Project. In 1940, he received a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation to create a series of images on the migration of African-Americans from the South. The painter Gwendolyn Knight assisted him on the captions for the images and initial coating of the panels. They married in 1941. The same year The Migration of the Negro series had its debut at the Downtown Gallery. Lawrence was the first artist of color to be represented by a major New York gallery, and the success of this exhibition gave him national prominence.

Lawrence was active as both a painter and art educator. He taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1946, and later at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1971, Lawrence became a professor of painting at the University of Washington in Seattle. In his later career he was also known for his serigraphs (silkscreens), many of them versions of series of paintings completed in earlier years, as well as for his book illustrations. Lawrence was still drawing and painting in preparation for still another series of works when he died in Seattle in 2000.             http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/lawrence-bio.htm

Mr. Lawrence agreed to a joint purchase of The Migration Series.

The Whitney Museum described The Migration Series:

I don’t think in terms of history about that series. I think in terms of contemporary life. It was such a part of me that I didn’t think of something outside. It was like I was doing a portrait of something. If it was a portrait, it was a portrait of myself, a portrait of my family, a portrait of my peers.
Jacob Lawrence1

In 1940 Jacob Lawrence received a $1,500 fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation to complete a series of panels on the  Great Migration. Lawrence conducted research at The  Schomburg Collection in Harlem and completed the series in 1941.

I did plenty of research in books and pamphlets written during the migration, and afterward…I took notes. Sometimes I would make ten or twenty sketches for one incident…By the time I started work on the (Migration Series), I was more conscious of what I wanted to do. I was looking consciously at things and for things.
Jacob Lawrence2
Although the series was originally meant to remain together as one work, that winter the artist agreed to a joint purchase by  The Museum of Modern Art and the  Phillips Collection.

Lawrence’s Migration Series depicts the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North during and after World War I. The Great Migration was the largest movement of black people since slavery removed Africans to the Americas. Lawrence’s sixty panels portray the story of people seeking a better life. The captions for each image combine history, sociology, and poetry in a visual narrative.

The railroad is the link in the series of events that comprise Lawrence’s epic story. The narrative cycle begins and ends with images of a train station. In the first panel, African Americans embark on their journey from the South to the North, through time and geography, conflict and hope. Scenes of the train station are repeated throughout the series ending with the text “And the migrants kept coming.”

In the first half of the series, the South is depicted as a bleak, rustic landscape where social inequities and injustice prevail–poverty, hunger, segregation, lynching, and discrimination are commonplace facts of life. Some scenes are portrayed as if seen from a moving train; the North appears only as names of train destinations.

In contrast to the environment of the South, the second half of the narrative depicts the buildings, people, and industry of the urban North. The final section of The Migration Series focuses on the new African-American communities of the North–the positive effects of improved social conditions as well as the ensuing conflicts of overcrowding and race riots.                                                                                                   https://whitney.org/www/jacoblawrence/art/migration_series.html

The August 4 SAM press release described SAM’s involvement. http://www.seattleartmuseum.org/Documents/Migration%20Series_press%20release.pdf

Moi was struck by the comment of Barbara Earl Thomas, who in addition to being a student of Mr. Lawrence is the current Vice President of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation. Ms. Thomas said emphatically, “It is fitting and timely that Jacob Lawrence, great American Painter, be celebrated by those who knew him and loved him.” That is the takeaway from the exhibit. Mr. Lawrence has migrated from the box of being just an extraordinary African American painter to a great American painter in the way that Picasso was a great Spanish painter who captured the soul of his country with Guernica http://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp Those who are masters of their craft migrate beyond time and culture to embrace an audience that has no boundaries of age, race, or culture. Good art has the ability to move people.

A comment moi and others have made when first seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre is that it is so small. Like the Mona Lisa, the panels are very small. At another viewing, one might remark, the art is not small, but one has grown and now appreciates the meaning.

For those who are not only interested in great art, but one American master’s observation of a thread that has been woven into the fabric of the American people, The Migration Series is a must see. A definite thumbs up from Dr. Wilda.

Other Reviews:

‘Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series,’ by Leah Dickerman and Elsa Smithgall               https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/books/review/jacob-lawrence-the-migration-series-by-leah-dickerman-and-elsa-smithgall.html?_r=0

Telling the Whole Story: Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series.”                                   http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/20/telling-the-whole-story

An Artistic Feast: Jacob Lawrence’s 60-Piece Migration Series on Display in NYC      http://www.theroot.com/an-artistic-feast-jacob-lawrence-s-60-piece-migration-1790859414


Jacob Lawrence: Exploring Stories – Whitney Museum of American Art                                   http://whitney.org/www/jacoblawrence/meet/

The Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Visual Resource Center                                                  http://www.jacobandgwenlawrence.org/

Jacob Lawrence facts, information, pictures                                                                               http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/american-art-biographies/jacob-lawrence

Elizabeth McCausland, “Jacob Lawrence,” in Ellen Harkins Wheat, ed., Jacob Lawrence: American Painter (Seattle: University of Washington Press in association with the Seattle Art Museum, 1986), p. 60.

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