"World wide dusk
Of dear dark facesDriven before an alien wind,
Scattered like seed
From far-off places
Growing in soil
That's strange and thin,
In another's garden."
"Black Seed" (1930), by Langston Hughes, expresses the sentiment of many blacks who migrated from the agrarian-based South to the technology-based North in the early 20th century.
For black artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-), the portrayal of the exodus would evolve into 60 sequential paintings titled, "The Migration of the Negro." In those days, 1940-41, little attention was being given to the epic relocation of America's black citizens, but Lawrence's creation changed all that.
Now, as part of a national traveling exhibit, "Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series" can be seen and experienced at the Denver Art Museum through Sept. 10.
Lawrence was born Sept. 7, 1917, in Atlantic City, N.J. While he was still a baby, the family moved to Easton, Pa., where Lawrence's sister and brother were born. Hard times followed, and the marriage of his parents ended. Unable to make ends meet, his mother, Rose, put Lawrence and his siblings into foster care while she went to New York to find work. She brought them to live with her in Harlem in 1930.
However, this crowded, fast-paced community provided neither economic security nor a safe haven in which to raise a family.
Concerned that her children, especially Lawrence - then a quiet teenager - would be susceptible to the dangers of street life, Rose enrolled her children in the Utopia Children's House, an after-school program of meals and activities.
It was here, under the tutelage of artist Charles Alston, that Lawrence embarked on his art career. Alston provided him with the necessary materials and helped him with technique and methods, without unduly influencing the artist.
Lawrence also took advantage of the free art classes at the Harlem Community Art Center, run by sculptor Augusta Savage. He also discovered that his affection for "uptown ways" was influencing his work.
At 306 W. 141st St., Lawrence discovered still more sources of inspiration. 306, as it came to be known, was a home converted into a workshop. Artists and art students came in to work or take classes, but 306 was also a hothouse for cultural dialogue among writers, musicians, actors, dancers and other artists.
In 1936, he won a scholarship to the American Artists School, where the teachers were political activists. They encouraged art forms that expressed the struggles and triumphs of the oppressed and addressed aspects of black history.
However, the meager sales of his paintings were not sustaining him. Lawrence's mother began urging him to take a job at the post office, one of the few secure positions available to blacks.
When Savage learned of this, she took Lawrence to the WPA Federal Art Project and had him signed on for a weekly salary of $23.80.
During the next several years, Lawrence completed three narrative series: a 41-panel series on the life of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint, a 32-panel series on Frederick Douglass and a 31-panel series on Harriet Tubman.
But it was his next project, the "Migration of the Negro" series, that established his position in the art world. Response to the series was overwhelming by all accounts and unprecedented for the work of a black artist. Fortune magazine devoted six pages in its November 1941 issue to a display of 26 panels and an essay describing the movements of blacks as an American saga.
"I grew up the son of migrants," says Lawrence. "My mother and father were on their way North when I was born in Atlantic City, N.J., so at the very beginning of my understanding of communication with words I was very much aware of this movement."
In 1940, after receiving a fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund, Law-rence secured his first studio, large enough to prepare and lay out all 60 panels of the planned migration series.
He painted the series all at once, color by color - starting with ivory black and burnt umber, and moving on through cadmium orange and yellow.
"I wanted to create a work that was very sparse," says Lawrence. "You'd see it immediately - the dark, the light values, very high in contrast, the warmth of the red."
The thin layer of paint atop the gessoed ground dates to a 15th century tempera technique. Yet the effects of Lawrence's brushwork - dry, scraping strokes juxtaposed with fluidly contoured passages of opaque color - belie a modern sensibility.
Regarding his images and narrative progression, Lawrence says, "I tried to create a staccato-like rhythm over and over again with the shapes as they move . . . I build on the geometry and I love it. I love the mystery of it along with the figurative element and the manipulation of color, of value, of texture. I guess my thinking at the time was to create a continuity."
"The Migration Series" begins and ends with images of the train station; the cycle is punctuated with the refrain, "And the migrants kept coming."
Lawrence depicts the economic hardships of the South - poverty, hunger, pestilence, child labor and backbreaking work. He also depicts the social injustices - unfair treatment in the courts and lynch-ings. Sequences of hardship and despair alternate with images of hope and excitement.
The first half of the series is devoted to depictions of the South; the second half describes the life the migrants found when they reached the North.
After the initial excitement of arrival, Lawrence shows the crowded, squalid conditions of Northern labor camps and urban slums. Images of race riots and the snobbery of more established blacks in the Northern cities are contrasted with paintings of the professionals who followed their clients north.
Near the end of the series, the migrants live as strangers in a strange land. Lawrence confronts their broken dreams with his own particular blend of realism and abstraction.
"I don't think in terms of history in that series," says Lawrence. "I think in terms of contemporary life. It was such a part of me that I didn't think of something outside. It was like I was doing a portrait of something. If it was a portrait, it was a portrait of myself, a portrait of my family, a portrait of my peers."