- Bonita Amenta Cutliff
During the 1930s, Augusta was well known in Harlem as a sculptor, art teacher, and community art program director. Born in Florida, on February 29, 1892, she was the seventh of fourteen children of Cornelia and Edward Fells. Her father was a poor Methodist minister who strongly opposed his daughter’s early interest in art. My father licked me four or five times a week,” Savage once recalled, “and almost whipped all the art out of me.
In 1919 a local potter gave her some clay from which she modeled a group of figures that she entered in the West Palm Beach County Fair. Her work was awarded a special prize and a ribbon of honor. Encouraged this success, she hoped to support herself by sculpting portrait busts of prominent blacks in the Florida community. When that did not materialize, she moved to New York.
In New York, Savage enrolled at the Cooper Union School of Art where she completed the four-year course in three years. During the mid-1920s when the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak, she lived and worked in a small studio apartment where she earned a reputation as a portrait sculptor, completing busts of prominent personalities such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Her best-known work of the 1920s was Gamin, an informal bust portrait of her nephew, for which she was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to study in Paris in 1929. In 1931 Savage won a second Rosenwald fellowship, which permitted her to remain in Paris for an additional year. She also received a Carnegie Foundation grant for eight months of travel in France, Belgium, and Germany.
Following her return to New York in 1932, Savage established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts and became an influential teacher in Harlem. In 1937, she was appointed the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center and was commissioned by the New York World’s Fair of 1939 to create a sculpture symbolizing the musical contributions of African Americans. Inspired by the lyrics of James Weldon Johnson’s poem Lift Every Voice and Sing, "The Harp" was Savage’s largest work and her last major commission. She spent almost two years completing the sixteen-foot sculpture. The Harp was exhibited in the court of the Contemporary Arts building where it received much acclaim. The sculpture depicted a group of twelve stylized black singers in graduated heights that symbolized the strings of the harp. No funds were available to cast The Harp, nor were there any facilities to store it. After the fair closed it was demolished as was all the art.
The Harlem Community Art Center closed during World War II when federal funds were cut off so, in 1939 Savage made an attempt to reestablish an art center in Harlem by opening of the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art. She was founder-director of the small gallery that was the first of its kind in Harlem. That venture closed shortly after its opening due to lack of money.
Savage was the first African American to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She believed that teaching others was far more important than creating art herself, and explained her motivation in an interview: “If I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work. No one could ask for more than that.”