We all have something to say as artists. We try to say it through our work, but all to often we end up saying it about our work, our words far more effective in saying what we want than our painting. Maybe that's because we don't do enough painting. Why stop at a single work when a whole series is needed to convey our thoughts? This is the unspoken philosophy of one of the most beloved African-American painters still alive and working in this country--Jacob Lawrence. Starting with his Migration series in 1941, which was reproduced in Fortune magazine, then purchased jointly by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Phillips Collection in Washington; Lawrence is seen in the tradition of venerable, black storytellers. He lists among his artistic influences Arthur Dove, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Picasso, Ben Shahn, John Marin, the Katzenjammer Kids, Maggie, and Jiggs. He sees each work in his many series as something akin to individual panels in the comics. And with his simple, yet emotionally charged style, the comparison is apt.
Born in 1917, in Atlantic City, young Jacob grew up in Philadelphia, and as a teenager, in Harlem. With no formal training of any kind in art, he soaked up, like the proverbial sponge, every drop of art of any kind he saw. Haunting museums as an impressionable young artist while working for $23.86 a week in the WPA Federal Arts Project, he found himself drawn to the works by artists such Romney, Gainsborough, and Reynolds. He admires that which, he says, he could never accomplish himself. That's just as well in that what he can do suits well what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. He admires the work of his contemporaries, Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, Dubuffet, and black sculptors Mel Edwards and Richard Hunt. But his favourite artist was the Mexican muralist, Jose Clemente Orozco, whom he met in the 1930s. Also, during this time, he met his wife, fellow artist, Gwendolyn Knight. Together they have pursued with their art the legendary figures from black history that makes up the largest body of his work--whole series on Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., and the Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint L'Ouverture.
While there certainly are African influences in his work, as black artists go, they are not all that dominant. For a time he and his wife lived in Nigeria, basking in an all-African culture for the first time in their lives while he painted his Nigerian series. They brought back to this country, and a college teaching position in Seattle, more an internal feeling for their African heritage, representing a spiritual presence in their work, rather than a noticeable change in a stylistic sense. Though not a portrait artist in the league of Lucien Freud, Alice Neel, or Francis Bacon, each series he has done involving African American legendary figures is a portrait; not in the sense of capturing a likeness physically, but thematically, in telling their stories and in capturing their essence--more than any single painting could ever do.