The Miraculous Life of Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence is among the most distinguished and accomplished American artists of the twentieth-century. Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917 and spent part of his childhood in Pennsylvania. He was not the only child; he had a sister named Geraldene and a brother named William. In 1930 his family split up and he moved to New York City's Harlem neighborhood, where as a teenager he attended classes taught by Charles Alston at the Harlem Community Art Center. He was the youngest of the fellow students so this was a great accomplishment. Following a period in upstate New York spent working for the Civilian Conservation Corps, he returned to art, first on a scholarship to the newly formed American Artists School, and then as an employee in the easel division of the WPA Federal Art Project. In the late 1930s, Lawrence occupied a studio at 306 West 141st Street in the company of fellow artists such as Alston, Romare Bearden, Ronald Joseph, and others. In 1941, Lawrence gained representation at the prestigious Downtown Gallery, where he met and exhibited alongside artists such as Stuart Davis, Ben Shahn, John Marin, and Charles Sheeler. Lawrence entered the Coast Guard in 1943 and was later assigned to the first racially integrated ship in U.S. history. He was released from military duty in December 1945. In the summer of 1946, at the invitation of Josef Albers, he taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Lawrence began teaching extensively in 1955, first at Pratt Institute in New York, and later at New School for Social Research, the Art Students League, and Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine. In 1962, he visited Africa for the first time; he returned in 1964 to lecture, teach and paint. In 1971, he and his wife, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, moved to Seattle, where he taught at the University of Washington until 1986.
In a century that equated the evolution of modern art with the will toward abstraction, Lawrence's early success and his sustained visibility are remarkable. He has walked a careful line between abstract and figurative art, using aesthetic values for social ends. His success at balancing such seemingly irreconcilable aspects of art is a fundamental characteristic of his long and distinguished career. In Lawrence's work social themes, often detailing the African-American experience, are expressed in colorfully lanky, simplified, expressive, and richly decorative figurative effects.