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Jacob Lawrence's art touched the world. His teaching changed Seattle

Jacob Lawrence in the Studio, 1983
Photo/Mary Randlett, courtesy UW Special Collections
Jacob Lawrence in the Studio, 1983

I first met the artist Jacob Lawrence in his attic. That was more than 30 years ago, on a gray day, not so unusual for Seattle. 

A small window let in pearly light that flattered the paintings leaning against the wall. The vivid primary colors seemed to pop off his canvases. Lawrence told me the light was something he enjoyed about the Pacific Northwest.

I remember Lawrence’s voice—deep and gravelly. He spoke slowly and kindly, welcoming me up to his studio and patiently answering my questions.

By that time, Lawrence had been in Seattle for more than a decade, but he was a New Yorker at heart, not a Northwesterner; he was firm about that. He was in the prime of an artistic career established on the East Coast when he moved here in 1971 with his wife, fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence.

He’d accepted a tenured professorship at the University of Washington School of Art. One of his new colleagues, painter Michael Spafford, later said the entire faculty was surprised that Lawrence would leave New York, his home and the center of the American art world.

Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1917. His parents separated, and when he was 13 years old, Lawrence and his siblings moved to Harlem to live with their mother. There, he took art classes at a federally funded settlement house program.

When I interviewed him again in 1998, Lawrence said it wasn’t an art school per se, but more of an arts and crafts program for the area children.

“Leather work, soap carving, painting. All these things were available,” Lawrence said. He said he gravitated to painting right away, that he loved playing with different colors.

The program was staffed by artists who recognized the boy’s talent. They encouraged him to pursue painting, even after he’d dropped out of school at 16 to help support his family. These mentors helped Lawrence find money to continue his art classes and eventually paved the way for his first art-related job.

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Lawrence always focused on African-American life. The young painter was inspired by the stories he heard from Harlem elders; stories of the movement to abolish slavery, black heroes and personal struggles. Lawrence began to tell those stories through series of inter-connected paintings.

He documented the fight for Haitian independence; then he created a series about abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Even then, his paintings feature the saturated, primary colors and bold geometric shapes that came to characterize his work.

In 1941, when Lawrence was 24, he completed the 60-painting series that would catapult him into the art-world’s eye: “The Migration of the American Negro,” now known simply as “The Migration Series.”

Each painting portrays an individual episode in the collective journey of black Americans from the rural south to the industrialized north. According to The New York Times, the series’ exhibition at a New York gallery brought Lawrence national acclaim.

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By the time Lawrence arrived in Seattle 30 years later, his place in the 20th century American art firmament was solid. Nevertheless, many of his undergraduate students didn’t know about their courtly professor’s reputation.

Barbara Earl Thomas, an award-winning Seattle artist, was just a teenager in 1971 when UW Art School administrators called her down to the office to meet this new professor named Jacob Lawrence. She saw a strange gentleman sitting quietly in a chair.

“I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I said, ‘Well, okay!’”

She assumed they’d summoned her because she was one of the few African-American students in the Art School at that time. Although she knew nothing about Lawrence’s art, Thomas quickly learned he was a gifted teacher.

“He really looked at your work and tried to figure out what it was you were trying to do,” Thomas says, “then he tried to help you do that.

Spafford, his colleague, was impressed by Lawrence’s ability to critique his students’ artwork without disparaging it.

“I would give many years of my life if I could be that good,” Spafford says.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence with Barbara Earl Thomas, center", "fid": "132906", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201701/barb.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy Barbara Earl Thomas"}]]Perhaps the greatest attribute Lawrence brought to both his teaching and to Seattle was his generous spirit.

According to Spafford and Thomas, Lawrence was quite willing to talk about art with everyone from elementary school students to his art school colleagues. His gracious attention won him friends and admirers across the city. Beth Sellars, who curated a 1998 exhibition of Lawrence’s work at the Henry Art Gallery on the UW campus, was amazed at the public response to the artist at the show’s opening.

“There were people standing in line all the way down the hallway, waiting to tell them how much they loved him,” she says. “I was stunned.”

By then Lawrence was in ill health, and he and his wife had abandoned any plans to return to New York. Although the Lawrences traveled to the East Coast frequently, over the years they developed relationships in Seattle that made life here comfortable for them. Lawrence once remarked to me that New York required "too much energy."

Like many New Yorkers, they didn’t drive, and that didn't change after they moved to Seattle. Barbara Earl Thomas says she often took them grocery shopping or out to social gatherings.

One day she got a call from Gwendolyn Lawrence, who’d been trying to reach the Seattle Art Museum by phone.

“She said, ‘Barbara, I couldn’t get through, because the phone said press one, and there’s nothing on my phone that I can press.’”

Thomas laughs at the memory.

“I said, ‘We’re going to have to fix that!’ They kept their rotary phone, but we bought them another that had those buttons.”

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By that time, the Lawrences had moved into three connected apartments at Horizon House, a retirement facility on First Hill. That was where I interviewed Lawrence in 1998, ahead of the Henry Gallery exhibition. We sat in his studio, surrounded by paintings, and a scale model study of a mural he was making for a New York subway station.

I asked him how his years in the Pacific Northwest had changed the trajectory of his art. He paused, then told me it hadn’t. He had mastered his technique before he arrived, and Lawrence explained that his subject matter wasn’t dependent on the Pacific Northwest. It might have been different, he said, if he’d moved west as a younger man.

“Our moving west was the first time I hadn’t lived in a typical eastern urban community,” he explained. “My whole awareness of shapes and forms and colors came out of my eastern experience.”

He mused that if he’d moved to Seattle at age 13, he probably would have developed quite differently as an artist. The idea seemed unfathomable to him.

Even after a quarter of a century in Seattle, Lawrence retained traces of a New York accent. He and his wife still identified as New Yorkers, but they were clearly fond of their adopted home. They endowed an artist fellowship at Seattle Art Museum and left money in their will to the University of Washington. Visitors can see Lawrence’s murals at Meany Hall on the UW campus and at the Washington State Convention Center.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Jacob Lawrence Migration Series, Panel 12", "fid": "132942", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201701/Migration-Series_Panel-12.jpg", "attribution": "Credit photo courtesy Seattle Art Museum, MOMA"}]]Barbara Earl Thomas believes Lawrence’s Seattle legacy transcends art or money.

“They allowed us to incorporate them into our community,” she says. “It was that largess that both Jacob and Gwen had, the way they treated people. I just think it’s something we could all use a bit of. Civility.”

Jacob Lawrence died in Seattle on June 9, 2000; he would have been 100 years old this September. To commemorate the occasion, Seattle Art Museum will present a rare exhibition of all 60 paintings in Lawrence’s “Migration Series.” The show runs Jan. 21 to April 23. 

Marcie Sillman can be reached at Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.