Profile of an artist and philosopher: Lawrence Savage

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By Walter L. Turner

Jackson Advocate Staff Writer

Editor’s note: Lawrence Savage, a former longtime resident of Jackson, MS, continues to be known throughout the capital city for his iconic drawings of Mississippi Black legislators. He has also captured other individuals, many from the pages of African American history, such as the one depicted above entitled “PARADOX”. The following is a reprint of an interview the Jackson Advocate had with the thought-provoking artist in 1990; he was 51 at the time. Now 85, Savage and his family reside in Dallas, Texas. Although he doesn’t take pen to paper as much, his past works, including one of Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna, have left an indelible mark on society.

JACKSON – Lawrence Savage, 51, a native of Memphis who grew up in Chicago, is a talented artist, specializing in Black art. In 1980, Savage returned to Mississippi to live in Natchez, the home of his wife, JoAnn. The Savages have two children, Yolanda and Lawrence II. They now live in Jackson.

Savage is the fourth of ten children. His parents are Freddie and Ruby Savage of Pine Bluff.

He attended George Washington Carver grade and high school in Chicago. At the age of 18, Savage enrolled in Chicago’s McCoy Barber College. Within the next ten years, he worked as a barber and served a three-year tour of duty in the U.S. Army. His unit was on standby during the Cuban Crisis (Bay of Pigs) in 1961.

Savage did not begin painting until he was “29 years old and had returned to live in Chicago.” He was offered scholarships to attend Chicago Art Institute and the Pennsylvania Art Institute, but rejected them, he said, “because I viewed my talents as a blessing and did not wish to filter what I feel and see or restrict it to someone else’s definition of style or form.”

He says although there is a similarity between barbering and painting, he received formal training for the former and not the latter “because barbering was not my special blessing.”

When he left Chicago, according to Savage, he “left behind more than 500 paintings.” Most of his paintings have been portraits, Savage says, “but, I am not limited to just portraits.”

Describing himself as an “opportunist,” he denied having to be in a certain mood or at a particular time of day to paint. “I take advantage of reality. I am sensitive to pain, fear, anger, sorrow, honesty, jealousy, courage, humor, doubt, and most outward signs of feelings and I express in my paintings and drawings what I see in my subject and/or feel within myself at a given moment,” he says. “The more intense the feeling within myself or the feeling displayed by my subject, the more pronounced that feeling will be seen in the painting. I express myself in my drawings and paintings much like writers do themselves in their writing.”

Savage says a “minor” controversy occurred recently over one of his paintings, “Kids on a Fence,” that was exhibited at the State Capitol. “The painting is neither vulgar nor offensive,” he said. However, it is humorous, stimulating, and provocative.”

The painting depicts two Black children – the male blowing harp and the female revealing her rear end – it is said to have “offended” a Black female elected official. It triggered a debate between members of the Black Caucus and others who considered it sexist and/or racist versus those who thought it was humorous.

“Once a painting has been purchased by a private individual, I generally refrain from public analysis,” Savage says. “I believe viewers should be free to bring to it or take from it, whatever they wish. However, since in this instance, the painting caused division, no matter how insignificant, among members of the Black Caucus, I am compelled to acknowledge that I painting it as a cartoon – humor.” The original, Savage says, was purchased by an astute and perceptive member of the Black Caucus.

“As an artist who is Black, with all the implications and ramifications resulting from that fact, I reserve the right to paint my people in a humorous way,” says Savage. “If a person finds it difficult accepting the painting and when I consciously chose to exhibit it, then he or she is probably not capable of accepting or dealing with reality. We, as a people, must be able to and must prepare our children to be able to understand our history and to deal with reality – good and bad – of our present, if we are going to advance. And advance we must.”

Attesting to his talents and recognition as an artist, Savage represented the State of Mississippi Pavilion at two World’s Fairs. His painting of President George Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle with the Nation’s Capitol in the background was presented to the Commander-In-Chief, himself.

A hand-signed letter from the Vice President, presented to Savage, praising the portrait and encouraging him to continue to develop his talents, is filed in Savage’s portfolio along with letters from other political and business leaders.

Declaring that he “does not discriminate” in his painting, Savage says, “I also painted a portrait of Mississippi’s Black Caucus and my paintings are displayed in offices and lobbies of persons of all races and political persuasions.”

Despite recognition from the rich and famous, Savage expressed frustration about being unable to reach “my own people.”

Insisting he is not unhappy, Savage says, “For some people to be happy, they have to have a lot of money. But for me, I’m happy when I have music in my soul and the love of my family.”

Admitting he is contemplating leaving the state, Savage says, “I believe that Atlanta will allow me to be among people who understand me as an artist and it would enable me to get a fresh focus and hopefully, I will be able to have an even keener perspective on Mississippi.”

“Given the extreme political, social, and economic forces that are impacting upon Black people, particularly Black men,” Savage says, “I’m not getting enough feedback from Black Mississippians. It seems that they are looking for someone or something more powerful than an artist to deliver them from their suffering. They should know by now that the only one with the power and who also should have the desire to liberate them are themselves. It’s like somebody has altered their natural feelings – cloned, dehumanized them.

“I paint real feelings. The real feelings of the people are being suppressed. The dilemma for me, which also is my blessing, is that I can only paint real people who express how they honestly feel. Evidently, in Mississippi, many Black people are not comfortable expressing what they feel.”

Having rejected an offer in 1986 from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta to be artist-in-residence for his print series, “I Have a Dream,” in honor of Dr. King, Savage says he is seriously reconsidering his earlier decision to remain a freelance artist.

“I would like to stay in Mississippi for the sake of the children – Black and white,” he says. “I am inspired by the fact that this is the very first time that I have been able to have expressed in writing some of the very vivid images I have of where the past and present is leading us.

“I feel that I can, and I know I want to, contribute in some way in making Mississippi an ideal place for all of us. I want to paint white men who are unafraid of change and Black men who will not compromise in helping to produce the change.”

“It is important to reform education,” says Savage. “However, the ones attempting to do so should not forget that our children are not machines and that this is more than just a mechanical, technical, or computerized world. It is also spiritual. And, yes, children should remain in school and take full advantage of the time that they spend there.

“They should know that one should not limit his or her concern for freedom, justice, and equality to merely one day or month – that any effort to deny constitutional rights to the least of us should be protested by all of us daily, if need be.”

“While I do not consider myself a philosopher, I have thought long and deeply about a number of matters while painting,” he says. “Some of my thoughts and resolutions are reflected in my painting and I hope that one day Mississippians will appreciate what I have attempted to do here.”

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Profile of an artist and philosopher: Lawrence Savage

By Jackson Advocate News Service
February 26, 2024