Teaching through Art and Verse – Ideas for Marilyn Nelson’s Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life
Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life
Written by Marilyn Nelson, Afterward by Tammi Lawson
Published by Christy Ottaviano Books, Little, Brown, 2022
Grades 7 and Up
“Leap-year babies believe they are unique./They know they’re born to make something happen./But all of us are born knowing that. Right?” Marilyn Nelson’s verse biography of Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage, sets up readers’ expectations for Savage on the opening page, and delivers throughout. In this captivating, painful, and celebratory life story, Nelson reveals Savage’s challenges and triumphs, including graduating from Cooper Union’s School of Art, being the first Black woman owner of an art gallery in New York City, and getting a sculpture commissioned for the 1939 World’s Fair. After a brutal childhood in Florida, where her preacher father beat her for making art, and two unsuccessful marriages, Savage joined the Great Migration northward and moved to Harlem. Nelson brings the culture of the Harlem Renaissance to life, using a range of poetic forms, from haiku to concrete poetry to free verse, to unveil Savage’s growth as an artist and teacher (Savage counted among her students a young Jacob Lawrence). Photographs of Savage’s sculptures pepper the book, providing readers with a steady dose of Savage’s artistry. An afterword by Tammi Lawson, curator of the Art and Artifacts Division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, provides readers with a detailed overview of Savage’s life and the significance of her art within the 20th century. Nelson’s fictionalized verse provides insight and access to the extraordinary life of an incredible artist and teacher, and offers readers of all ages with an example of artistry, agency, perseverance, and self-determination.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Note to our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you.
Pre- and Post-Reading Sculpture Text Set. Before having students read Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life, introduce them to Savage’s sculptures. Create a digital slideshow (using links to the digital images in Further Explorations) and ask students to apply Visual Thinking Strategies (“What is happening in this sculpture? What makes you think that? What else can you see?”). Provide for students to compare and contrast what they see in each sculpture in pairs or small groups and after viewing all of the different sculptures, ask them to write a verbal “sketch” of who and what Savage valued as subjects for her art, and to identify questions about Savage that they hope the verse biography answers. After completing Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life, have students return to those sculptures and their sketches of Savage, to consider what they have learned about her.
Duet Text Set. Before having students read Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life, introduce them to Augusta Savage via the fictionalized picture book biography In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage, written by Alan Schroeder and illustrated by JaeMe Bereal. What questions do they have about Savage? What themes do they think might surface in Nelson’s verse biography? Next, have them read Nelson’s verse biography. Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life. Have students compare and contrast the ways in which Savage is represented in each book. How are they similar to one another, despite their different formats and audiences? How do they differ? How does the delivery of content vary between the picturebook and verse formats? What are the benefits of each?
Leveraging Back Matter. After reading the primary verse narrative of Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life, have students read the prose Afterward, which is a chronological exposition of Savage’s life, written by Tammi Lawson, curator of the Art and Artifacts Division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library. How does the back matter help students to better understand Nelson’s narrative? What new questions do students have about Savage? Give them time to explore the resources listed below in Further Explorations to find answers to their questions.
Forms of Poetry. After reading the book, have students consider Nelson’s stylistic choices. What poetic forms does she use throughout the biography? Why might specific poetic forms – such as a poem composed of haiku verses or concrete poems – appear when they do? To support students in this inquiry work, provide small groups with copies of Paul Janezcko’s A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms. Students could use the picture book to identify poems that really stand out to them, or you could assign different groups different poetic forms to look for within the book. What kinds of poetic forms are used? What matches do students see between the content of the poem and the form? Why that poem for that moment in Savage’s life? If you have time, offer students the opportunity to write about someone they know a lot about, or someone they would like to research, using three or four different poetic forms.
Augusta Savage and the Harlem Renaissance. As students read Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life, provide them with the opportunity to learn more about her world in Harlem, to better contextualize the world she moved into as a young woman. You might start with Carole Boston Weatherford’s Sugar Hill, to get an overview of the neighborhood’s important places and notable residents. Next, have students view this short video from PBS Learning Media, “Harlem in the 1920s.” Students can then explore primary source photographs embedded within the interactive maps at Digital Harlem.
Great Migration. August Savage’s move from Florida to New York City coincided with the Great Migration, a period of time when thousands of Blacks moved from the segregated South to Northern cities, seeking expanded freedoms and opportunities. Provide students with the opportunity to learn more about the Great Migration using the resources included in Further Explorations below. Start with the PBS News Hour Classroom’s “Remembering the Great Migration” video. Next, have students explore the “Great Migration” series of paintings by Jacob Lawrence, one of Augusta Savage’s students, using the digital resources of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. All sixty paintings and excerpts from an interview with Lawrence are all available to view digitally.
The Harp Sculpture and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” One of Savage’s most important pieces was her sculpture “The Harp,” created for the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. Sadly, because there were no funds to cast the sculpture in bronze, the mold was destroyed. We see it now only in photographs. Savage was inspired to sculpt a harp composed of people singing because of the importance of the song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” in the Black Freedom Movement. Some of your students may be very familiar with this song, while others may not. Introduce students to the song using two picture books, Kelly Starling Lyons and Keith Mallet’s Sing a Song: How “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations and Bryan Collier’s visual interpretation of the lyrics in Lift Every Voice and Sing. After exploring these two picture books, have students listen to two different performances of the song, and how the different artists shape meaning and mood through their use of tempo and volume.
Creating Art to Capture Community. Augusta Savage, like so many Harlem Renaissance creators, used the people and places around her as the sources of her work. As a result, there is an extraordinary body of art – poetry, fiction, music, and visual art – that reflects the people and culture of the Harlem Renaissance, captured by Black artists of the time. Who are the people who are creating art in your community? Invite local artists and artisans of all kinds and/or representatives from local arts councils to speak to your class (in-person or virtual) about their art. Next, working with the visual art and music teachers in your school – if you have them – ask students to create art based on people and places in your community. If possible, have students share their art with their community by displaying and performing the art at the school or local community center or public library.
Teaching as a Legacy. In interviews towards the end of her life, Augusta Savage considered her students her legacy, almost as if they, too, were a form of art. Nelson concludes the biography with this quote: “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.” Have students share this quote with teachers in your school and throughout your community, and curate their responses. Students might also want to ask adults around them what teachers cultivated in them a long-lasting talent that has enriched their life. Perhaps you can use the ruminations of teachers in your community as the basis for a collage mural reflecting the legacy of teachers and their students.
Marilyn Nelson Verse Biography Study. Have students read Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life as one of a range of biographies in verse written by Marilyn Nelson, including; Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem, A Wreath for Emmett Till, Carver: A Life in Poems. Allow students to self-select which book they would like to read, and allow groups to document their questions and thoughts about the subject of the work as they read. Next, using copies of Paul Janezcko’s A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, have students identify the different forms of poetry used throughout their book, and consider why Nelson chose those forms. Allow students to create responses to the text using poetry, visual art, or performance. Have students make historical and thematic connections across the four books, which span the 18th century to the mid-20th, and the histories recounted.
Challenges of Women Artists. For centuries, female artists have had to deal with male predatory behavior and institutional and societal barriers that made it more difficult for them to create art. Nelson recounts how racism prevented Savage from being able to use an earned scholarship to attend the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in France. And at a certain point in her life, Augusta Savage left Harlem and retreated to Saugerties, New York in the Catskill Mountains, returning to the city only briefly and periodically to run errands. While Savage never revealed specific details, it is noted that she did not return to Harlem permanently until the death of Joe Gould, a white writer infatuated with Savage and suspected of predatory behavior towards her. After reading Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life, have students explore picture book biographies of other female creators from different times and places, and consider the similarities and differences in their experiences. Working with your school or local librarian, use this list of 40 Multicultural Children’s Books about Female Artists from Colours of Us to provide a set of books your students can explore. Students can then do their own research on these female artists, and report out their findings.
Online Resources and Books about Augusta Savage
Schroeder, A. (2009). In her hands: The story of sculptor Augusta Savage. Ill. by J. Bereal. Lee and Low
“Augusta Savage, the Black Woman Artist Who Crafted a Life She Was Told She Couldn’t Have,” The New York Times, March 2021
“Sculptor Augusta Savage Said Her Legacy was the Work of her Students,” NPR, July 15, 2019
“Augusta Savage: The Extraordinary Story of the Trail Blazing Artist,” The Guardian, May 8, 2019
“Activist Art on a World Stage,” New York Historical Society
Film Footage of Augusta Savage Sculpting, source unknown
“Augusta Savage: A Woman of Her Word,” Jeffreen Hayes, Lecture at the National Gallery of Art, June 23, 2019
“Gamin,” under 2-minute video from The Mint Museum about the sculpture
Online Resources and Books on The Great Migration
Greenfield, E. (2010). The Great Migration: Journey to the North. Ill. by J.S. Gilchrist. Harper Collins.
“The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Great Migration,” Smithsonian Magazine
Marilyn Nelson’s Verse Biographies
Nelson, M. (2001). Carver: A Life in Poems. Front Street.
—–(2004). Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Front Street.
—–(2005). A Wreath for Emmett Till. Ill. by P. Lardy. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.
Janeczko, J.B. (2005). A kick in the head: An everyday guide to poetic forms. Ill. by C. Raschka. Candlewick Press.
Online Resources and Books on The Harlem Renaissance
“Harlem in the 1920s,” The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross Series, PBS Learning Media
Grimes, N. (2021). Legacy: Women poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomsbury.
Powell, P.H. (2014). Josephine: The dazzling life of Josephine Baker. Chronicle Books.
Weatherford, C.B. (2014). Sugar Hill: Harlem’s historic neighborhood. Ill. by R. G. Christie. Albert Whitman and Company.
Online Resources and Books on “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
Online Versions of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” History Explained, NAACP
“A History of the Newly Resurgent ‘Black National Anthem’,” Time Magazine, July 2020
Johnson, J. W. (2007). Lift every voice and sing. Ill. by B. Collier. Amistad/Harper Collins.
Lyons, K. S. (2019). Sing a song: How “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations. Ill. by K. Mallett.
Books about Female Artists
40 Multicultural Children’s Books about Female Artists from Colours of Us
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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