Take a closer look with artist Kerry James Marshall
This resolute-looking figure of a woman seems to be gazing away from us, toward some distant horizon. Study her skirt. You’ll see the outlines of two children cut into its smooth surface. The woman holds her hands over them, almost as if she’s protecting or nurturing the generations to come. The artist, Sargent Johnson, carved this work out of a block of redwood. He then covered it with many layers of gesso, a preparation of plaster and glue, as well as cloth and, finally, paint. As you can see, he chose to emphasize only a few details—like the swirling lines of the woman’s hair, or the buttons on her blouse.
Johnson, who was born in 1888 in Boston, moved to San Francisco in 1915. He was of Native American, Swedish, and African American descent, but identified fully with the African American part of his heritage. He is remembered today as an artist of the Harlem Renaissance, even though he lived and worked in San Francisco. Like this resolute, powerful figure, much of the work Johnson made during his long career as a sculptor is concerned with showing the beauty and dignity of his people.
We’re standing in front of a wooden sculpture called Forever Free made by Sargent Johnson in 1933. It’s three feet high and about a foot in diameter, and it depicts an African American mother from head to toe, standing ramrod straight, her chin held high, with two naked children tucked under her arms. Her skin is a lush mahogany, smooth all over, highlighting large dark eyes and muted red lips. Her brown hair is pulled straight back from her forehead and tucked behind her ears into a bun at the back of her neck. She is dressed formally, in a long-sleeved white blouse, tucked into a black skirt with a strong horizontal waistline. Her shoulders are wide, and her arms hang straight down her sides, nestling the children. Johnson has carved the children from the same column of wood as the mother, as if they are extensions of her. Each one stands atop one of her feet. The sculpture rises up out of a square pedestal of duller, grainy wood—a contrast with the gleaming finish the artist has applied to the mother and children.
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