Augusta Savage

Augusta Savage

"I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work." - Augusta Savage


Illustration by Mai Ly Degnan

Illustration by Mai Ly Degnan

Sculptor, educator and activist, Augusta Savage was born in Florida in 1892 by the name of Augusta Christine Fells. Creating art was natural to Savage and at a young age, she started making sculptures of animals and figures from the natural clay found in her hometown. Her father who was a strict Methodist minister didn't approve of her creative activities but Savage continued with her creations. When her family moved to West Palm Beach where there was a lack of natural clay, Savage sourced materials from a local potter. She entered her work in a local county fair and won the prize as well as the support of the fair's superintendent who encouraged her work.

Savage eventually moved to New York in the early 1920s after failing to establish herself as a sculptor in Jacksonville. There, she started attending Cooper Union School of Art where she thrived as a student, earned a scholarship and graduated in only 3 years. While at Cooper Union, Savage faced discrimination when she applied to a special summer program in France to study art but was denied due to her race. She immediately sent letters to the local media and her story made headlines though the committee did not reverse their decision. 

After school, Savage soon made a name for herself as a portrait sculptor making busts of prominent African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. She was one of the first artists who dealt with black physiognomy. She eventually got her opportunity to study abroad when she was awarded a Julius Rosenwald fellowship in 1929. She spent time in Paris and exhibited her work at the Grand Palais. She subsequently earned a second Rosenwald fellowship continuing her studies as well as a Carnegie Foundation grant which allowed her to travel to other European countries.

During the Great Depression, Savage returned to the U.S. and started teaching art in Harlem. In 1934, she became the first African-American member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Savage was a fervent advocate of the arts and helped many African American artists. She established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in 1932, founded the Harlem Artists' Guild and lobbied the Works Projects Administration (WPA) to help other young artists find work during the financial crisis. Later, she served as director for the Harlem Community Center.

For the 1939 New York World's Fair, Savage was commissioned to create a sculpture which she titled The Harp. The Harp is considered one of her major works though it was destroyed at the end of the fair. It was inspired by the words of James Weldon Johnson's poem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and depicts 12 singing black youth as the harp's strings with the sounding board transformed into an arm and a hand. In the front, a kneeling young man offers music in his hands. 

While working on The Harp, Savage lost her directorial position at the Harlem Community Center and quickly became frustrated at having to reestablish herself. She left the city and moved to a farm in Saugerties, New York.

In 1962, Savage died of cancer in relative obscurity. Since the time of her death, her work has gained resurgence and she is remembered today as one of the great leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance.


"I chose Augusta Savage because as an artist, I was inspired by her determination and activism through her art.  Not only did she stand up in the eyes of racism and discrimination through her sculpture work, but she also was a huge advocate for equal rights for African Americans in the arts." - Mai Ly Degnan


Over the past twenty years, Art Start has become an award-winning, nationally recognized model for using the creative arts to transform young, at-risk lives. Art Start kids live in city shelters, on the streets, are involved in court cases, or surviving with parents in crisis. Through Art Start’s daily creative arts workshops taking place inside some of the city’s loneliest places, at-risk youth collaborate with local teaching artists and educators who donate their time and guidance to nurture the youth’s creativity and talents.

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