Thursday, May 29, 2008

Heaven Can Wait

In 2003, the first major exhibition of Gwendolyn Knight’s art was called “Never Late for Heaven.” Born May 26, 1913, Gwen Knight Lawrence, wife and artistic companion of African-American painter Jacob Lawrence, fought off the discrimination stacked up against both women and black painters and built a type of heaven on earth through her art. Knight’s The White Dress (above, from 1999) belongs to a series of screenprints she made late in her career, well into her eighties. The simplified forms and gem-like colors, including the stunning white of the dress itself, show the influence of native African folk art, which the Lawrences studied first hand while living in Nigeria in the 1960s. For much of her life, Gwen Knight championed the art of her husband, but her own art reflects her own unique talents.

Born in Barbados, Knight came to the United States with her family as a young girl. They soon moved to New York City, where Gwen found herself caught up in the Harlem Renaissance , that flowering of African-American art in all media. When the Great Depression forced her to leave her studies at Howard University, Knight joined the arts division of the WPA and the workshop of African-American sculptor Augusta Savage , who became a mentor to Knight. Savage helped prepare Knight for the life of a black, female artist by relating her own struggle. She met Jacob Lawrence while studying under Savage. They married in 1941 and remained together until his death in 2000. Over the next 60 years, they painted and taught together all around the world, often teaching at the same institutions, before settling down in Seattle for their last 30 years together. New Orleans (above, from 2002) demonstrates Knight’s great ability to evoke a place with a single bold image. As the scenery continually changed around them, the Lawrences never altered their commitment to art.

Knight continued to experiment even in her later years. Her Standing (above, from 1999) represents a whole series of etchings and drawings she did of horses and other animals, quickly and almost abstractly rendered in an attempt to capture the vitality of the creatures. Knight’s art is hard to understand outside the context of Lawrence’s, understandably considering his very important chronicling of the twentieth-century African-American experience, but the small glimpses we get of her individual art tease us of what more she could have done. "It wasn't necessary for me to have acclaim," Knight once said. "I just knew that I wanted to do it, so I did it whenever I could." The drive to make art helped keep her young and vital up to her death at 91 years of age, five years after her husband’s death. Heaven could wait, at least in her case.

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