UW News

March 29, 2021

New course examines Jacob Lawrence’s impact on American art, Seattle and the UW

Jacob Lawrence painting in his studio

Jacob Lawrence in his studio in 1979. UW Special Collections

Jacob Lawrence was one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. He also taught at the University of Washington from 1971 to 1986. For the first time, a UW course is looking at his legacy on the art world, at the UW and beyond.

Art and Seattle: Jacob Lawrence,” taught by Juliet Sperling, an assistant professor of art history, kicks off March 29 with the beginning of spring quarter. It is the first in a new series of “Art and Seattle” courses, which will explore a variety of topics relevant to art in Seattle from the 1800s to the present. Sometimes, it will take a cue from museums and exhibits in the area.

This course coincides with the Seattle Art Museum exhibit “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” which runs through May 23. Sperling has been working with the museum on ways to incorporate the exhibit into her course, including an opportunity for students to engage with the museum on social media; a session with Theresa Papanikolas, the curator of American art at SAM; and an assignment based on the exhibit. Sperling will ask each student to focus on a single panel from Lawrence’s famous 30-panel series, “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” and reflect on parallels between the story in the panel and the struggles society faces today.

“Jacob Lawrence carefully balanced complex visual styles and recognizable subject matter to convey messages that reached more people than I think almost any other artist’s work could at the time,” Sperling said. “When he painted the ‘Struggle’ series in the mid-1950s, most artists cared more about formal experimentation than relatability. He was a rare artist who made cutting-edge modern art that was also accessible.”

Sperling spoke with UW News about Lawrence’s legacy and what she thinks students can take from the class.

What makes Jacob Lawrence such an important artist?

Jacob Lawrence described himself as a painter of Black life, and his work significantly expanded the subjects and histories represented on the walls of major American museums. But his incredible skill was in translating narrative into a visual form in a way that people could understand, no matter their experience with looking at art. It looks effortless, but it’s actually extremely hard to compress a story that takes place over a long span of time, or involves multiple locations, into a flat panel that’s about the size of a piece of computer paper.

What do you hope students will get from your class “Art and Seattle: Jacob Lawrence”?

I’m lucky as a professor of American art history, because the work that I’m illuminating is cultural property that belongs to all of us. I don’t think that most people realize that we as Americans have ownership over this history. No matter who you are or your subjectivity or your background, American art belongs to you, and I get to teach people that in my classes.

With “Art and Seattle: Jacob Lawrence,” the volume gets turned up on that, because we’re here in Washington, where Jacob Lawrence lived and taught. If you work at the UW, if you study at the UW, if you study in the School of Art + Art History + Design, you’re connected to his work.

Can you talk more about his legacy at the UW?

I’m new faculty at the UW. Starting this job and learning more about Lawrence’s legacy has been a way for me to get to know my new institution, and also the history of art in the Pacific Northwest, a corner of the country that most historians of American art aren’t really familiar with. I am observing evidence of Lawrence’s legacy everywhere: Wherever I look it seems like there’s somebody who studied with him when he was a professor. In his archives and his papers, there are multiple, hundred-plus pages of files full of letters to Lawrence from people in the Seattle area. A lot of them are elementary school kids, who just write to him, and they tell him how much they want to be artists because of his work or how he taught them about John Brown when they didn’t know about John Brown before. And then there are reams of letters from former students.

We also have the UW’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery. The reason it’s named after him is because he was so valued by his colleagues as this incredible teacher and mentor. The legacy lives on in a particularly important way through the Jacob Lawrence Legacy Residency.

It’s a real privilege to be able to research an artist who was clearly a good and generous person. A lot of the people we study made incredible art and were difficult personalities. It’s so clear to me from all of the letters and all of the archives that Jacob Lawrence was beloved by his community.

What can Jacob Lawrence’s work tell us about the world today?

The big lesson seems to be that how we teach and frame history matters. He reminds us of that constantly by dangling familiar stories in front of us, with just enough of a shift of perspective that we have to question our existing understandings of those events. That’s something that we need to keep thinking about as we consider what textbooks we use to teach our children, what syllabi we use, whom we are assigning in those classes and so on.

I’ve also been thinking  so much about Lawrence’s “Struggle” series [which is currently at SAM]. It makes us see that struggle is not a historical thing; it’s a constant state of being in our nation. The series shows events from 1770 to 1817, but it’s so easy to imagine extending that series into the civil rights movement, into today — to think about Black Lives Matter, the murders of Black Americans and Asian Americans, and too many more examples. The artist Barbara Earl Thomas, who studied with Lawrence at the UW, asks of this series: “When have we not been in struggle?” That’s a clear lesson I take from Lawrence’s work, and I hope his work is teaching other people that, too.

For more information, contact Sperling at jsperl@uw.edu.