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Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence

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Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence

American, (1913–2005)
Howard University

Painter Gwendolyn Knight first came to the United States from Barbados when she was seven years old. At the age of 13, she moved with her family from Saint Louis to Harlem, in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance. For the first two years of college, Knight attended Howard University, where she studied painting with Louis Mailou Jones and printmaking with James Lesesne Wells. As the Depression struck close to home, Knight returned to Harlem, where she studied in the workshop of sculptor Augusta Savage. Knight crossed paths with many famous artists of the Harlem Renaissance, including: Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes. With Savage as a model for a successful artist, Knight began her promising career by working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under the provisions of the Federal Arts Project, where she assisted Charles Alston with his murals for the Harlem Hospital Center. Alston would introduce her to her future husband, Jacob Lawrence. Knight and Lawrence married in 1941 and remained committed to each other for 59 years.

In 1946, Lawrence taught Summer courses at Black Mountain College, while Knight informally provided dance classes and learned from students and teachers outside of the classroom. Upon her return to New York, she would continue dancing with the New Dance Group, led by members of Martha Graham’s company, and studying design at the New School for Social Research. The couple moved in 1970 to Seattle, where they lived the remainder of their lives. In 2000, the couple started the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation to continue their legacy through educational support.

The 2004 screenprint Girl replicates the artist’s painting Portrait of a Girl, which was completed in 1940, the same year that Knight worked with Alston on the WPA-funded murals Magic in Medicine and Modern Medicine at the Harlem Hospital Center. The halo-like structures in the upper left-hand portion of the print reference a 1929 painting titled Foghorns by Arthur Dove, who is considered to be one of her major influences. In the background, a horse charmingly munches on an apple; Knight would return to the horse motif in her later years.

Knight received many awards during her lifetime, including the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award, the Black Caucus Centennial Medallion, the Arizona State University Centennial Award of Merit, and two honorary degrees, among others. Her work can be found in The Johnson Collection, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

(Source: Museum staff)

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