- Interview with Jacob Lawrence*
I want to begin by asking you about the first solo exhibition of your work at the Harlem YMCA, which was sponsored by the James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild.
The James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild was one of the various organizations that were very supportive of the young people in the Harlem community who were in the arts. I was one of the young people, and they took note of my work and they gave me a show, which was a wonderful thing. I’ve forgotten the exact year; that was so long ago.
It was 1938.
Well, I was twenty-one at that time. I was born in 1917. So that’s how that happened. It was a period when the Harlem community was very supportive of all the arts—music, dance, theater, and the visual arts. I benefitted to a great degree by groups like the James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild.
Could you talk about some of the artists who influenced you as a young person growing up in Harlem?
Charles Alston was my first teacher, my first mentor. Another artist that I knew quite well was Augusta Savage. In fact, she was very instrumental in getting me work on the WPA Federal Art Project. She liked my work, and she liked the work of the young people in general. She headed the Harlem Community Arts Center, and in 1937, she took me down to the hiring board of the Federal Art Project. They responded favorably to my work, but they thought I was too young and they told her to bring me back the next year. I went back home and forgot about it, but she hadn’t forgotten. When I turned twenty-one, I was hired on the Federal Art Project to do paintings. I received the fabulous salary of $23.86 a week, which at that time was a lot of money. We were deep in the Depression. Coming in contact with Augusta Savage was one of the highlights of my career. Claude McKay was also very instrumental in my career. He was very much interested in young people and what they were doing and he was very encouraging. I would say the persons who had the greatest influence on my career were Charles Alston, Augusta Savage, and [End Page 260] Claude McKay. They didn’t work anything like me and I didn’t work anything like them. They were not all painters. I mentioned Augusta Savage, who was a sculptor. I mentioned Claude McKay, who was a writer. It was just their encouragement and the Harlem community’s encouragement—that was the influence.
Since you mentioned Claude McKay, did you know any other writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance?
I used to see Aaron Douglas around. He was an older man, of course. He was right out of the Harlem Renaissance.
Did you know Alain Locke, who is called the father of the Harlem Renaissance?
Well, he knew everybody. Dr. Locke worked for the Harmon Foundation, which gave annual awards mostly to minorities in the arts. He was very involved with that. I would bet my life on this: Dr. Locke was probably the first black critic of the arts. He wrote about it, he told about it, and he did a wonderful job.
What about Countee Cullen?
I didn’t know Countee Cullen. I knew Langston Hughes. After the war, he asked me to illustrate his book One-Way Ticket.
That would have been after you had done the Migration of the Negro series.
Yes. I guess that was why Langston was interested in me doing the illustrations. One-Way Ticket refers to black people coming to the North. I did six illustrations for his book.
Before the Migration series of sixty panels, you painted the Toussaint L’Ouverture series of forty-one panels, the Frederick Douglass series of thirty-two panels, and the Harriet Tubman series of thirty-one panels. How did you come to do paintings in a format series?
As children of the Harlem community...