The making of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle
When Lawrence first exhibited Struggle: From the History of the American People in 1956, he came to the exhibition opening with a list. He thanked all those who came before him, stood with him and supported him. PEM’s project to reunite the Struggle series panels after more than 60 years took six years and could not have been possible without the work of dozens of students, interns, fellows, collectors, dealers, scholars, museums, universities, libraries and artists. We would like to thank them all sincerely for contributing to this historic project.
The project’s research and methodology builds upon that of the many who precede us. The archivists at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the librarians at the New York Public Library anchored our approaches to Struggle in a return to Lawrence’s sources. The artist’s earliest intentions for the series, expressed in documents such as grant applications, correspondence, gallery records, and exhibition reviews offered important insights into his sources and methods of invention. We began here to look for the meanings Lawrence set up for viewers to find between words and images in his Struggle series.
During the project’s research phase from 2015 to 2018, Struggle was the focus of a student exhibition, seminars, and the topic of interdisciplinary symposia. Artists, writers, students and scholars deepened our study of Lawrence’s engagement with history in convenings organized by the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, the McIntire Department of Art at UVA, Savannah College of Art and Design, and PEM. Curatorial fieldwork included travels around the country, to New York, Chicago, Seattle, Charlottesville, and Savannah to discuss this project with many individuals that helped extend the community around Lawrence and Struggle. This network evolved into the opportunity to travel this exhibition across the country on a national tour.
Our goal has been to fully explore the possibilities of a multivocal reading of Struggle and to spark new generations to keep exploring. We felt strongly that the series demanded a book with diverse readings of and responses to the panels. An extraordinary choir of authors, many of whom have been composing with us since the project’s inception, offer individual interpretations of all 30 panels. The accompanying young adult book publishes a collection of interpretive essays written by a diverse group of teens in response to the series’ panels. You can explore them all here.
For the Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle exhibition, contemporary artists Hank Willis Thomas, Derrick Adams, and Bethany Collins help unlock connections across time and place and highlight shared themes, including the struggles for freedom, citizenship, and democracy in America that resonate with Lawrence’s art. The exhibition at PEM has been further realized through a cross-departmental staff effort for public programming and engagement with community partners.
Every PEM exhibition and publication project is the result of many years of collaborative work. We wish to thank the many individuals we consulted and partnered with for their generosity and support:
Contributing authors to the Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle exhibition catalog:
Derrick Adams; Sandy Alexandre; Rachel Allen; Austen Barron Bailly; Lonnie G. Bunch III; Elgin Cleckley; Bethany Collins; Spencer Crew; Philip J. Deloria; Andrea Douglas; David C. Driskell; Walter O. Evans; Kimberli Gant; Elyse Gerstenecker; Erin C.Golightly; Lydia Gordon; Kerri Greenidge; Randall Griffey; Leslie King Hammond; Patricia Hills; Kevin Jennings; Jacquelynn Jones; Erich Kessel; Steve Locke; Deborah McDowell; Masud Olufani; Harvey Ross; Jacquelyn Days Serwer; Elsa Smithgall; Barbara Earl Thomas; Hank Willis Thomas; Salamishah Tillet ; Elizabeth Hutton Turner; Monique Verdin; Chloe Downe Wells; Tamir Williams; Sylvia Yount
Contributing organizations and authors to the American Struggle: Teens Respond to Jacob Lawrence publication: The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Randall Griffey, Darcy-Tell Morales, Sylvia Yount; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: M. Scott Johnson, Zenzele Johnson, Brian Jones, Tammi Lawson, Kadiatou Tubman, Kevin Young; The Phillips Collection: Rachel Goldberg, Erica Harper, Dorothy Kosinski, Suzanne Wright; Thurgood Marshall Academy: Cosby Hunt; Boston Community Leadership Academy: Paula Grillo; The Studio Museum in Harlem: Chloe Hayward, Gi Huo, Shanta Lawson; Birmingham Museum of Art: Lindsey Hammel, Emily Hylton, Willow Scott, Rachel White; Seattle Art Museum: Sarah Bloom, Rayna Mathis, Regan Pro; Six Foot Press: Matt Ballesteros, Josh Maida, Liliana Morales, Sara Rubenson; Bright Sky Publishing: Marla Garcia, Mike Vance; Four Colour Print Group: Paul Reber, Becka Rhoads, Daniel Stamper; Preface by Barbara Earl Thomas and edited by Chul R. Kim
Programming partners include: RAW Art Works; Voices Against Injustice; North Shore Community Development Coalition; Salem United; New England Gospel Ensemble; Refugee Orchestra Project; Eureka Ensemble Women’s Chorus; Wreck Shop; The Moth; 826 Boston; Castle of our Skins; Wee the People; Syncopated Ladies