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An American in Saginaw: Jacob Lawrence and The Artis Collection

Reviewer: Ben Champagne

Venue: Saginaw Art Museum

Renaissance after renaissance. Culture continues to refine itself and improve. Art collectors Anthony and Davida Artis are convening monthly at The Saginaw Art Museum for a series of six educational and inspirational panels on some of the best pieces in their collection. On Saturday January 20th, the topic of discussion was none other than Jacob Lawrence. 

For those not in the know, Lawrence was a major component of the Harlem Renaissance. Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong were frequent contributors to the Harlem music scene. Langston Hughes was writing poetry and changing minds. Lawrence was painting street scenes. All of this and more converged to kick off a renaissance that can be felt today. The people living in a neighborhood called Black Bohemia moved to Harlem and changed everything. 

The Artis Collection brought two works by Lawrence for the audience to get acquainted with. Simultaneously, The Saginaw Art Museum is displaying a powerful show by Jacob Lawrence, The John Brown Series. This is a moving collection about a white abolitionist who fought against slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation and The Civil War. 

The husband and wife duo are passionate about art. Art changed their lives. And participating in the book reading, discussion and documentary viewing can give you goosebumps. Anthony has talked about the financial merit of owning such works. Being able to feed his family from the investment of art. But more importantly, he keeps alive the work of these artists. 

In reading the book The Great Migration, participants were able to see all 60 panels in Lawrence’s series. We are all taught some of the unfavorable and very real parts of America History that people keep quiet. Then they could go upstairs and see the John Brown series. It was a totally immersive afternoon in the world of Lawrences colors and the history of America. We seldom learn about the Reconstruction Era of America from 1861-1900. Or the fact that really it last 100 years. And the fact that really it is still being constructed today. 

For an individual interested in change and new ideas, learning about Lawrence in that setting might be close to what it must’ve felt like at Black Mountain College. Josef Albers invited Lawrence to teach there in 1946. This university was farther ahead ,in terms of integration, than the rest of America. There, was a fertile ground for artists and people to explore the reaches of the human spirit. 

It is this exact feeling that one gets in attending these art lectures. The other people who showed up to listen and to engage had the very same spirit as me. One of curiosity, and sorrow for the past and an imagination that can build full of color and dimension. This writer believes that much like a symphony can be the highest achievement of mankind, so can the convention or artists to study another artist. 

Anthony and Davida Artis have four lectures remaining. The next features the Gee’s Bend artists known for their quilts on February 17th. However, you can come in and have a reverent moment with the works of Jacob Lawrence any day the museum is open, until April 20th. 

It is refreshing to see like minded people at an event like this and to hear Jacob Lawrence’s words in video. Having just passed in 2000 we are reminded that heroes are people just like us, with a vision and struggle. And heck, sometimes your friend Marcia will show up with a picture of her and the artist in Flint together in the 90s.

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