Today, Google Doodles is honoring Gioachino Rossini, born on February 29th in the year 1792. Rossini was an Italian composer of operas, chamber music, and more. He is perhaps most well known for writing the opera The Barber of Seville, but you hear him all over the place without necessarily knowing it. While Google Doodles often focus on well-known scientists and technologists, the arts often lead the way on innovation, creativity, and reflection, and we’ll follow Google’s lead on that today.
Here at Speaking Up, we’re going to fast-forward a hundred years to take a look at Augusta Savage, an African-American sculptor born on February 29th in 1892. Savage grew up in Florida, and as a child she loved to make clay figures. When she was in high school, her principal not only encouraged her to continue in her art, but actually paid her during her senior year to teach clay modeling to her fellow students. As we’ve mentioned time and again here on Speaking Up, a relationship with a supportive role model can often be a life-changing and life-defining experience. This experience connected two of Savage’s career interests, teaching and art, and this would come full-circle in her later success.
After she was widowed and left to raise her daughter, Savage’s art career really got started. Savage earned money through her clay art, and even won a prize (following many sales of her pieces) at the Palm Beach county fair. Based off of that success, she applied to and attended the Cooper Union art school in New York City, and was so impressive to the faculty that she was later awarded a scholarship to cover her room and board.
While her talent was obvious, financial difficulties made it impossible for Augusta Savage to pursue several opportunities, including a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. In one instance, she created an enormous plaster sculpture for the 1939 World’s Fair (sometimes called ‘Harp’ and based on the song Lift Every Voice and Sing) but could not afford to cast it in bronze, so this work, now recognized as one of her great contributions to sculpture, was destroyed at the end of the fair. Other programs excluded her specifically because of her race. Her talent and her difficulties were shared within the African-American arts community, and fund-raising parties, women’s groups, and others donated money to send her to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, where she won awards, earned fellowships, studied with famous sculptors, and was able to tour Europe.
Upon returning to the US in 1931, Savage was elected as the first African-American artist to join the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She opened her own arts studio and mentored future artists, as teaching was a lifelong passion of hers, and went on to direct the Harlem Community Art Center funded by the Works Progress Administration.