Jacob Lawrence: How important is a blade of grass?

by Alicia Anstead

When African-American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) started painting, he could afford only poster paint rather than oil. The simplicity of the material, however, turned out to be a gateway to his signature style. He found his voice early -- when teachers encouraged him in after-school programs and, then again, when the Federal Theater Project, a Works Progress Administration program, produced several plays about Haiti. Lawrence saw one in 1938, and it deeply affected him -- enough so that he created a series of 41 paintings about Haiti and its local hero Toussaint L'Ouverture. In the 1980s and 1990s, Lawrence did a series of silk-screen prints based on those original scenes. These are on display through December 15 at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute Rudenstine Gallery, which means you have exactly two weeks left to see this collection of vibrant works that reflect an artist first in his 20s and then in again in his 70s.

Artists in this country don't get any more American than Lawrence, who spent his life exploring shape and color through African-American experiences. This small exhibition, which also includes b&w photos and a video of Lawrence's last interview just weeks before his death, is massive in its reach. Imaginatively, it touches upon slavery, revolution, war, international affairs, the Depression, the South-North migration of blacks, the Harlem Renaissance and one artist's journey to do as Alain Locke advised: to remake his past in order to make his future.

And yet, Jacob Lawrence, in that final interview, states: "How important a blade of grass is." The simplicity and profundity of his art underscore that philosophy in bold strokes.

Resistance and Revolution: The Toussaint L'Ouverture Prints of Jacob Lawrence, curated by Patricia Hills, will run through Dec. 15 at the W.E.B. Du Bois Instititute Rudenstine Gallery, 104 Mt. Auburn Street. FMI: www.dubois.fas.harvard.edu

[Caption: Toussaint L'Ouverture captured the city of Dondon, and the imagination of Jacob Lawrence. ]