Interview with Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence by Connie Bostic

This is Connie Bostic, it’s December 20th, 1999.  We’re in the studio of Jacob Lawrence in Seattle and with us is Gwendolyn Lawrence who taught at Black Mountain College in 1947, is that right?  1947 when you were there?

 

Jacob taught.

 

Ok.

 

Not me.  (laughing)

 

Alright. (laughing)  Could you tell us a little bit about your early life and how you came to be in Black Mountain that summer?

 

Well, we were living in New York City, and Josef Albers called up out of the blue and asked if Jake would attend the summer institute and Jake said yes, so away we went. They arranged everything so we would be, so we would feel comfortable arriving there. We had a room or something and we arrived in . . . I don’t know where, I don’t know where we changed, I can’t remember if our flight was straight through but it probably was straight through. So, it was very interesting. It was. . . glad to go.

 

What were you doing in New York when Albers called.

 

Well, I was Jake’s wife. . .

 

Ok.

 

…and painting on my own. I’ve always, I’ve always been an artist. I always thought I was gonna be an artist from a little child and it wasn’t easy for a woman artist in those days. It was. . . people didn’t pay much attention to women artists except. . . well. . . Georgia O’Keefe who had ______ and a couple of other artists, oh Iris Perera and, I guess that was it. Who had this big reputation.

 

 

So you went from New York to Black Mountain.  What was your first impression of the campus when you arrived there?

 

I thought it was a very beautiful campus. There were mountains around which some people liked to climb. I was not inclined to climb a mountain but, it was very beautiful and the atmosphere was so attuned to the arts that it was really a wonderful time.

 

Who were some of the other teachers who were there that summer?

 

Let me see, there was. . . we just spoke about the sculptor, what was his name again?

 

Was it Richard Lippold?

 

No, it was a Japanese man. . . . and the photographers Nancy Newhall and her husband. There was Varda (laughing) have you . . . did they speak about Varda?

 

Tell us about Varda.

 

Varda was very theatrical. And the great. . . and you know he liked young girls. Oh yeah and Mary Scaravagliana who was a sculptor felt it very personal. But in any event he was very dramatic and very flamboyant. And I don’t know, he wore a red sweater all the time. I don’t know if anybody told you about the big party we had there.

 

No. Tell us about the party.

 

Well, it was a Greek party and everybody had to come as a Greek person, and they built a wooden horse, the students built a wooden horse. That was the horse that Jason invaded . . . and Varda and Leo Leonni was there at the same time. He was, you know Leo Leonni’s name, right?  And he came as Varda with his red sweater on (laughing). The students had wonderful, some people came as Greek columns. They were very inventive. And it was a very, very wonderful party. But the next day there was a lot of dropped heads (laughing).

 

Was there any particular reason for those dropped heads?

 

Well they got too…they had too much fun I think (laughing).

 

Of the people who were there that summer, who stands out most in your memory?

 

Varda (laughing) and I think Barton, it was Barton who I think was his name was connected to Fortune magazine? And Leo Leonni. . . but as a matter of fact, all of them stood out, you know and they. . .they . . . and the Japanese sculptor. And he was such a lovely man. He was a kind of a calming influence on me, I imagine on lots of other people too. So he liked to fish and he would tell me why he liked to fish.

 

Why did he say he liked to fish?

 

Well it was meditative, you know. And then let’s see, who else was there. I liked Mr. Albers but he was a very strict person about the kind of work that he liked. But I did attend some of his classes, from which I learned a great deal.

 

What were they like?

 

Well, he was a wonderful lecturer and he really made you understand what his philosophy was, and you didn’t. . . at least I didn’t resent the fact that he didn’t like any other art but that art because it taught me a lot. . . that art taught me a lot and I got it there at Black Mountain College.

 

Did he like your paintings?

 

Oh no! (laughing) No I’m a figurative painter you see, and his wife showed me. . . showed him one of my paintings and she said ‘isn’t this a good painting?’ and he was very huffy about it and said ‘no!’

 

What about Anni, did you find her supportive?

 

Yes. Yes. I found most people there supportive.  The only thing that Mr. Albers ever complimented me on was a costume I made once out of some curtains to go to that party!  (laughing). He thought that was wonderful, I’d taken the draperies and the curtains down and made myself a Greek costume and so he thought that was wonderful so, he did compliment me once.

 

At the time you went to Black Mountain, that area of the country was still very, very segregated.

 

Yes.

 

Can you talk a little bit about how you felt going s (S)outh at that time?

 

Hmm. . .how I felt about going south. Well, I didn’t, I knew there was segregation. I knew I would have to adjust to that. But I was glad to go because of the Bauhaus and meeting people that I hadn’t met before who were artists and who were. . . and then there was the music. That was the first time I heard ‘Song of the Earth’ by Mahler.  And of course Mahler’s widow was married to the architect who was a Bauhaus. . . what am I trying to say. . . I’m having a senior moment as they say (laughing). . . .

 

I have those frequently.

 

Let’s see. . . no. . . Gropius. . .

 

Gropius.

 

Yes. And so I went. . . I, I wasn’t afraid you know, to go, but I certainly knew that I wasn’t going to go anywhere but to that campus. Which was what happened. We never left that campus to go into Black Mountain, or into Asheville.

 

So you stayed right there the whole time.

 

Stayed right there. But there was lots to enjoy there. There were parties, there was dinnertime, dances and all sorts of things happening plus the immersion in the arts.

 

While you were there did you feel that the absence of grades had any impact on how hard the students worked?

 

No. There were no grades.

 

Do you think that made any difference to the students?

 

I don’t. . . I think . . . I think that most of the students who came there knew that it was a different kind of place. That you wouldn’t be graded. As long as you learned what the Bauhaus was about. That was the main thing. To make you creative and to learn about the Bauhaus and what they used. . .Matiere and papers and color, so I don’t think. . . I think they were very happy not to feel that they had to be graded.

 

Did you ever feel a sense of competition between the students or between other faculty members?

 

I can’t say that I did. Maybe I was naïve then and didn’t recognize it but. . .

 

Do you think being there affected your work later on?

 

Well, yes. Yes I think so. I learned some things that I might not have learned about something that was far away from something that I was doing. So I think that I applied these things to my figurative painting. These abstract things about the Bauhaus to my own paintings. I think I. . . I think I really learned a lot there.

 

Was there a work program for the students?

 

Yes there was.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

 

Well. I don’t know. I didn’t have to do any of it. (laughing)

 

Good.

 

But I thought, well, they all seemed happy to do their chores. They really did. I never heard of anybody complaining about what they had to do.

 

There was never any money at Black Mountain.  And some of the students were heavily subsidized by some of the other students who had to pay full amounts and a little more.  Did you ever feel that this was an issue with any of the students?

 

No. You know, I, I think there was only. . . if, if, the only time I felt that students, or a student was unhappy was that they were figurative painters, and that they had to meet Mr. Albers’ strict. . .you know I think there was one sculptor there named Lenny Schwartz. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him; he died I think. Here, we met him here, again I don’t know if you’ve heard of Lenny Schwartz, he was a sculptor who did figurative sculpture and he was not happy.

 

Do you think the school’s poverty affected the experience there, the fact that there was no money?

 

No. You know I don’t think anybody, I, I never noticed that, that anybody was affected.  Everybody was having too much of a good time what with parties and all that sort of thing, I don’t think so, I just really don’t think so but I may not, as I’ve said before, I may not have realized it if they did.

 

What effect did the environment have, I know you mentioned the beauty of the mountains.

 

That lake was just wonderful.

 

Do you think your experience would have been the same if you’d been in a different kind of a place?  Maybe a little more urban?

 

No. I don’t think so. I think that the atmosphere contributed to you felt, what I felt about Black Mountain.

 

Was there anything that you didn’t do, or somebody that you might have gotten to know a little better that you’ve thought about since then and have regretted not doing while you were there?

 

Again, the question again?

 

Is there anything that you didn’t do while you were there that you wish now that you had done?

 

Well I wish I had worked more (laughing). I do I wish I had applied myself to my work, art, my painting. I did some sculpture there too.

 

How do you think that summer affected the rest of your life?

 

I think it made me think in a more intellectual way about the making of works of art.  Because there was Albers teaching all these abstract theories and these, the use of materials that I had never, although I never changed materials that he talked about but it was really a learning experience for me, and I think I learned to assess works of art because of the knowledge I gained and more precisely.

 

Thank you so much Ms. Lawrence.

 

Well you’re quite welcome.

 

JACOB LAWRENCE

 

(Gwendolyn says something in the background)

Connie:  Well guess what.  It’s right up there with the motorcycle show they just did. . (laughing)  I was there, I guess I saw the ____ show, no I saw the Rauschenberg show but. . . you ready?  Ok!  When were you at Black Mountain College?

 

1947.  At the summer institute.  About 10 weeks.

 

This is Connie Bostic.  It’s December 20th, 1999.  We’re in Jacob Lawrence’s Studio in Seattle.  Would you tell us, Mr. Lawrence, when you were at Black Mountain?

 

1947.  I think it was.  For the summer institute.

 

Could you talk a little about your early life?  And then tell us how you came to be at Black Mountain that summer?

 

Well my early life was. . . .my family was part of the black migration from the south and north which started right after WWI, and of course it felt the momentum and so on. . .and we made our way North and finally settled in New York City like many, many people from that part of the country. When I was 13, yeah I was 13 years of age when my family, it was my mother because my mother and father were separated and I arrived in New York, and I was 13 years of age, in 1930, arrived in New York and I’ll never forget the experience of seeing these tall buildings and the fire. . . I’ll always remember the fire escapes. I that that’s why there’s so many in my paintings, the fire escape motif repeats itself over and over again, and that was fascinating for me.

 

So where did you grow up before you went to New York?  Where were you born?

 

I was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I guess that was one of the stops that my parents made on their way here North. So that’s where I was born.

 

So you came to Black Mountain in 1947.

Yes, that’s right.

 

And how did that come about?

 

That came about . . . um. . Josef Albers, who was very instrumental in the Bauhaus spirit, it was very strong then, I guess it’s still strong.  And he invited me to teach at the summer institute, and I’ve always thought of that. . . why did he invite me?  Because I’m a figurative painter, but I think it was because, well I’d like to think it was because he felt I had something to offer.  But I think it had something to do with my hard edge painting.  And very, very limited palette, not limited in a way but using, um, primary colors, plus black and white, so I think that was his interest. . . inviting me to Black Mountain.

 

So how did he approach you about coming that summer?

 

I don’t think I met him prior to that. All our correspondence was by mail. And that was it. I had never met him and this was my first teaching experience by the way.

 

Oh it was your first teaching experience?

 

That’s right.

 

How did you feel about that?

 

Well I felt very good about it, it was very exciting being around people who had different ideas, philosophies, and so on, so it was a very exciting experience for me.

 

What were the classes you taught that summer?

 

Well, we didn’t have classes as such, what we visited studios. The students worked, the students worked and um. . . what was your question again? I’ve lost it.

 

What were the classes, what did you teach, you visited studios rather than teaching for a while?

 

That’s right. What were they like? The classes were very open, very. . . .let’s see what else I can say. . . it was like a university, very open classes, very experimental, it reflected the philosophy of the school. You go in, you talk to the students about their work, they would talk to you about your work and that’s what it was.

 

Ok.  Do you know who any of your students were that summer?  Do you remember any specific or any particular student or. . .

 

Yes. I remember I think Gwen mentioned a Jean, I think that was her name. I can’t remember her last name and she was a student of, well they were all students of all of us, you know. Then there was, she played the violin, not Jean but someone. . . Dorothy Cole, played the violin. She was, they were all students of everyone. You know it was like that. We didn’t have any special students, again it reflected the philosophy of the school. Students could move around, and work with whom they wanted to work so it was very free in that way.

 

Do you think the fact that they weren’t being graded made any difference in their incentive to work hard?

 

Well they were very highly motivated, I’ll put it that way. All the students. They did have, there was one problem there, I think with. . . there were a couple of students, about three, who were very young, and they had a problem because of the discipline, that they didn’t have to meet a kind of a discipline, I don’t mean it was destructive or anything but the kind of discipline that you brought to the school because you wanted to get as much out of it as you possibly could.   They had a problem, you know those three young women, they were like, 17, something like that, which is sort of young.

 

Pretty young to be away from home and have those expectations.

 

That’s right. Yeah.

 

Did you ever feel there was any competition between the students?

 

I never felt that. No.

 

What about members of the faculty.  Did they compete with each other, do you think?

Not that I know of. Not that I know of.

 

At the time you were there, that part of the country was still very segregated.  Can you talk a little bit about how you felt going to the south?

 

Well, by that time, it was our first trip south by the way, or one of our first trips. Your question was how did feel about that first trip?

 

Yeah.

 

Well, I knew it, I wasn’t naïve. Although I’d never been south or had just been south a couple of times. I knew from reading, a bunch of my material, the subject matter dealt with what I thought the south was like, it’s interracial relationships and things of that sort. So I wasn’t naïve, I knew more or less what to expect. So it wasn’t, it wasn’t, it wasn’t, new to me, it wasn’t a new experience.

 

Did you have any experiences with any of the local people that you remember?

 

No. I never came in contact with them, I never came in contact with them.

 

And what about the people at the school?  Were there any problems there?

 

There was only one person. I think Gwen mentioned, and I think her name was Sarah Lee, and I don’t think we had any communication the entire summer that we were there. And she was very, uh, well what we thought was stereotypical southern with the relationships with others, and so on, and. . .but other than that I can’t think of any unpleasant experiences, no.

 

But you stayed at the school, you didn’t wander around. . .

 

Oh yes. I stayed at the school, oh yeah. Well I knew enough not to wander around a place like that.

 

I see.  The work program was going on while you were there.  Do you remember anything specific about the work programs?

 

The students?

 

Yeah.

 

No. I know, I think the work program was distributed, and every student has his or her own chores to do and these were accepted, they were accepted things, yeah.

 

There was never any money in the school during the entire time the school existed, some of the students were heavily subsidized by the fees paid by other students.  Did you see any problem, ever, among the students that were in that situation?

 

No. No I didn’t.

 

Did you feel that the poverty at this school affected the educational experience there? There was no money for a lot of materials, or buildings, or laboratories, or any of that. Did you feel that that had an effect?

 

I figure it had an effect, but it was a good one. Because they used, like the Bauhaus, they used this, to..to..to..to..uh..build on its philosophy.  So you’d go out and you’d pick up a piece of grass or a dandelion or natural material, you see, you didn’t have to go to an art school – it was all right there and I think they uh. . . the school tried to, and was successful in getting the students to appreciate the natural environment and natural things that the students would come in contact with, so they used that – not having materials, certain kind of materials or don’t have certain kinds of materials that you get in any big city art school was used.

 

So you think in some ways that was a positive thing.

 

It was positive, yes.  And the other students accepted that.

 

What about the natural environment, the mountains and the lake and the woods.  Do you think that made a difference in the experience of Black Mountain?

 

Oh I think so. Yes I think so. Again, not in a formal way. But you know, you have people you talk to, other students and professors, and they would talk about. . . you know we mentioned Will Burton and climbing this mountain and, um, what looked like a mountain, it was just a big hill.  But it looked like a mountain. And um, yes. Well, it. . . I think it taught you, or you became more aware, again I repeat of your natural environment, it taught you to appreciate the natural environment, and even today when I teach, I try to bring this out, that there’s so many things around you that you can use. You can. . . you know you don’t just discard them you use these things, so I think that was very good experience.

 

Is there anything you didn’t do that summer that you regret not doing now?  Somebody that you didn’t get to know better, or …?

 

Not really, no, because it was such a small community that we, we, I think all of us depending on how you felt, could make contact with anyone else, students, instructors, anyone. So I can’t think of anything.

 

How do you think that summer affected your work and the rest of your life?

 

Well, in my teaching, for one thing, and I use quite a bit, not all of it, but quite a bit of the Bauhaus method of teaching, and it’s a very exciting experience when we communicate. Albers was a very, I get all this from Albers, by the way – he was a very strong person, and I used to attend some of his lectures, I guess we all did, and um, he didn’t speak good, he didn’t have a command of English at that time, it wasn’t very strong. Later on, after he died? Of course he did have so his English was very limited but his demonstrations were so visual that you could appreciate, like he’d take a wire and twist it, and move it around, and talk about space and that type of thing, and spaces between objects, and it was like, it was like, it was a wonderful experience to come in contact with that kind of philosophy. I don’t know if everyone did this but surely for me, it was a wonderful experience.

 

Do you think your work would have been different if you hadn’t spent that summer at Black Mountain?

 

I don’t think so, no. I don’t think so, I think it would have been more or less the same. Hoping that it would have more scope of course, greater dimension, but my work hasn’t changed over a period of years.

 

You already had your show in New York at that time. The big show?

 

No. . . (thoughtful)

 

Wasn’t that in 1944?

 

Yes. I was in the service. That’s right.

 

Well thank you very much.  It’s been great.  I really appreciate it!

 

You asked some good questions there. Very challenging.

 

Well, I’ve tried to be consistent and ask everybody I’ve talked to pretty much the same kinds of questions because that way you begin to get, you know a feel of how it was different for a lot of people. I’ve talked to some students who were so intimidated by Albers that they were terrified of him.

 

Yeah, I can see that. I can see that.

 

And so it’s been real interesting. A couple of them were really afraid of him. One woman decided to be a writer instead of a painter because she was so scared of Albers.

 

He was quite a strong personality. You know it was very impressive too that there was a porch where we’d all have lunch, mostly lunch not dinner and I don’t know if you remember (looking at Gwen) and all the instructors were invited to have shows there, like an exhibition, and Albers would move from one table to the next, during different lunch times, looking at and observing work. He paid attention. But what he was thinking, you don’t know.

 

Did he every talk to you directly about your work?

 

Not directly. Not to me. No. But the mere fact that you were invited by him had a meaning.  It was a positive feeling on his part. You wouldn’t have been there otherwise.  You had something to give, something to give to the school.  Even if he said he invited you there because he didn’t like the work! (everyone laughs).

 

This is what not to do.

 

What not to do. Well we met someone that taught that way but not at Black Mountain. At the. . .what was that famous. . . . what was that famous museum in Philadelphia… Barnes Foundation.

 

Ah the Barnes Foundation.

 

She taught that way – she’d say this is what not to do and show works that she thought were not successful

 

That’s a different approach!

 

I know, but I heard her.

 

I hadn’t heard that story but it’s quite a great story. I wonder how those students turned out.  That’s weird. How many years did you teach after that?

 

Oh off and on, I taught before retiring about 20 something years. 25, 26, 27 years.

 

How many different places?

 

Let me see, there was New School, Art Student’s League, Pratt Institute, University of Washington, several places, yeah. It was a wonderful experience for me. Teaching. I really enjoyed it. I retired in 1984. It was time for me to retire. I got a lot out of my teaching, but you don’t want to just go on and on and on. So I just retired.

 

Well there comes a time when you just need to have time for yourself too.

 

That’s right. So I just retired.

 

So that time comes.  That time comes.

 

I retired from teaching, but not from my work.

 

Well that’s the important thing. You know you never retire from your work. As long as the wheels turn, you keep doing that. What are you working on now?

 

Well I just finished a series of paintings called ‘Games’ and it deals with various games. I just completed it. I don’t have anything here to show, because the paintings are at the gallery. And I’ll continue, what am I working on now, city scenes, my urban experience, things of that sort.

 

How many pieces are in the games series?

 

12.

 

What are the games?

 

What are they? Pool, checkers, chess, 3 card monte, know that game?

 

No, I don’t know that game.

 

It’s a gambling game.

 

Oh is it?

 

Shuffling cards around….(muffled conversation) the idea is it’s never there. And even if you guess right – and you know, you’ve made your bet, I understand that the person who wins, they walks away, they’ll be followed and threatened until they turn the money over. . . .Let’s see, what other games did I leave out. . . pool, checkers, chess, 3 card monte, oh, the game that things disappear and then come back, … magic! Now you see it, now you don’t.  I can’t think of them, maybe I’m tired of looking at them!

 

Well I like that it’s just games with two or three people involved instead of like a big. . . yeah.

 

Like baseball or something, No, I didn’t deal with that. … Intimate games… Poker. No

dominoes, I wish I’d thought about that.

 

{So the interview disintegrates into a 4 way conversation about games I think. . . }

 

But then. . . . .

 

Jacob talking about Gwen:  She left something out, she made a wonderful contribution to the dance. . .

 

Oh!  We have to talk about that. We have to talk about that. You have to put a microphone back on so we can talk about that.  Why don’t you put my microphone on her and let’s, I can just ask the question and she can answer it. Wanna do that?  I understand that one of the more memorable events at Black Mountain had to do with dance and you were involved, could you talk about that a little bit?

 

Gwen: Yes. I had liked ballet a whole lot at one time, and then I saw Martha Graham and I was just entranced by that you see. So Mr. Varda is teaching ballet, so just to confuse and cause dissension I started to teach the Graham technique because I had been going to the New School in New York and studying with some of her troupe. So I knew a lot, I knew some of the motions so I started to take all his young students away, so that’s why I did that you know.

 

So did you do this the whole time you were there?

 

I don’t remember how, I did it a lot, I probably did it all summer. . . . .get those kids out of that Ballet class that Varda was teaching.

 

Jacob: She was teasing him

 

What were the implications? So what happened?  How did he feel about that?

 

 

Gwen: Well he tried hard to keep his students you know, and I don’t remember whether he said anything to me or whether he just knew what I was doing, but he, oh we had a little sort of discussion about the merits of ballet and the merits of the modern dance. There were a few little words, but not many. But that was my whole. . . just teasing

 

So this was something extra the students didn’t expect.

 

Gwen: No they didn’t expect that class of Martha Graham, and that was a lot of nerve because. . . I really was not a Martha Graham dancer!

 

Jacob: And this is what went on at Black Mountain. It was like this. Things that were not scheduled, and not formalized, this could happen. You see, that was one of the positive things about the school

 

That wonderful spontaneity?

 

Jacob: Yes, that spontaneity.

 

Gwen: So that was that story.

 

Ok.  We’re done.