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Saturday, June 10, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Painter Jacob Lawrence dies

Special to The Seattle Times

The most important thing for painter Jacob Lawrence was to express the truth as he saw it. "I want to communicate. I want the idea to strike right away," he told a reporter in a 1945 interview.

That attitude characterized his powerfully composed narrative paintings until the end. Yesterday, after a 60-year career that made him one of this country's most esteemed artists, Jacob Lawrence died from lung cancer at his Seattle home. He was 82. He is survived by his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight.

"Everyone loved him so much," said painter Michael Spafford, a former colleague of Mr. Lawrence at the University of Washington. "I can't think of anyone who doesn't feel that way. And with the death of (sculptor) James Washington Jr. (Wednesday) . . . - it's incredible, the loss."

From the very beginning of his career as a Harlem painter barely into his 20s, Mr. Lawrence struck an immediate chord, not only with the public but also with the ultracompetitive art establishment. His success was immediate and lasting, but he and Knight lived modestly, never sought the limelight, befriended many, and retained not only a mutual sense of droll humor but also an unfailing courtesy and grace.

Mr. Lawrence was the first African-American artist to exhibit in a mainstream New York gallery. In 1941, at age 24, he created a name for himself with an exhibit of his narrative "Migration of the Negro" series, depicting the flight of African Americans from the rural South.

The 60 paintings are small, no more than about 12 by 18 inches, but because they are thematically connected, when hung together they read almost like a mural, a single work of art.

Time magazine critic Robert Hughes describes the series as having the effect "of a visual ballad, with each painting a stanza: taut, compressed, pared down to the barest requirements of narration."

The work was featured in a major story in Fortune magazine, with 26 color reproductions. After that, Mr. Lawrence was regularly included in annual exhibits at the prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, at a time when other black artists were being ignored.

Born in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1917, Mr. Lawrence moved to New York at age 13. He came of age in the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, studying at the American Artists School.

Knight and Mr. Lawrence married in 1941. He was drafted into the Coast Guard in World War II, and served aboard the first racially integrated ship in U.S. naval history.

Despite his quick success as an artist, Mr. Lawrence's early years weren't easy. They are recounted in a recent book for children, "Story Painter: The Life of Jacob Lawrence," by John Duggleby, who tells that the painter was abandoned first by his father, than his mother, because she went to New York to seek work (the family was reunited three years later in Harlem).

Although his mother told him, "You'll never amount to anything as an artist," teachers and fellow artists saw his gift and encouraged him.

When Mr. Lawrence was 21, artist Augusta Savage helped him to enroll in the government's art program, the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, which gave artists paint and supplies and a small stipend ($23.86 per week).

At 22, his series of 41 paintings on the life of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture was exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

By the age of 30, he was considered "the foremost black artist in the United States," according to Time magazine. The distinction "black" artist is unjustly narrow. While it's true that Mr. Lawrence worked from his own social and racial experience, he was an extraordinary painter whose themes reached far beyond his own community.

Mr. Lawrence usually worked in series, telling stories through the progression of paintings. His color is often intense - saturated blues, yellows and reds - and his compositions simplified to the point of abstraction. His subject matter can be brutal. But even when dealing with the subject of racial oppression, as he did in series depicting the activities of abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Mr. Lawrence managed to convey a sense of hope and progress in his imagery.

Critic Hughes noted the power of Mr. Lawrence's restraint: "When he painted a lynching, for instance, he left out the dangling body and the jeering crowd: there is only bare earth, a branch, an empty noose and the huddled lump of a grieving woman."

"I think of him as one of the great figurative formalists of the century," Spafford said. "He really altered the art landscape of the Northwest, and his career blossomed here, although you wouldn't expect that, coming from a hub like New York."

Mr. Lawrence and Knight moved to Seattle in 1971, when he accepted a teaching position in the UW art department. Both artists are represented here by the Francine Seders Gallery in Greenwood.

One of Mr. Lawrence's former students, painter Barbara Thomas, remembers his exceptional way of teaching. "Jake's instruction always went beyond what he was teaching, to how to lead your life. I always thought that what he told me about composition applied to everything in the world. That was a gift he had. I don't think he was even aware of it."

Curator Beth Sellars, who organized Mr. Lawrence's 1998 exhibition at the UW's Henry Art Gallery, said the time she spent with Mr. Lawrence was an honor. "To me, he is the ultimate mentor of people, his kindness, thoughtfulness and generosity - both he and Gwen, actually, because I think of them as one. So much of what he accomplished was through her sheer strength."

Today, Mr. Lawrence's work is represented in the collections of nearly 200 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Harlem. He has been the subject of several retrospectives, including exhibits at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974 and the Seattle Art Museum in 1986.

Another retrospective is being planned by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and will open next May. A 72-foot-long mural that Mr. Lawrence designed will be installed next year in the new Times Square Subway Complex at Broadway and 42nd Street.

In October, the UW Press will publish the Jacob Lawrence catalogue raisonne, a definitive documentation of more than 900 of Mr. Lawrence's estimated 1,100 works of art. A catalogue raisonne is considered by some to be the ultimate tribute to an artist, and one that requires exhaustive research and documentation.

Mr. Lawrence continued painting until several weeks ago. Through it all, his style has remained consistent, equally balanced between striking visuals and profound content. When asked once how he kept from being swayed by artistic trends, he replied, "I have an assuredness of myself."

Public services in Seattle and New York will be announced at a later date.

Donations to the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation are requested in lieu of flowers. The foundation address is 300 Commercial St., No. 2, Boston, MA 02109.

Seattle Times critic Melinda Bargreen contributed to this report.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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