Posted by: Drew | March 15, 2009

The art of history: Jacob Lawrence paints the Coast Guard

Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class John D. Miller

Jacob Lawrence’s lifework was the painting of the narrative of African-American history: The accomplishments of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman; the northern exodus known as the Great Migration; the vibrant community of early twentieth-century Harlem.

In 1944 Lawrence’s own life imitated his art when he made history as part of the first racially integrated afloat unit in the U.S. military. That year he joined the USS SEA CLOUD, a yacht converted into a weather patrol ship for the Coast Guard, which was

Jacob Lawrence, “Cmbar Katian,” 1944 (United States Coast Guard Museum, New London, Conn.)

then operating under the control of the Navy. Afterward, Lawrence remembered this landmark experiment in racial equality as “the best democracy I have ever known.” Moreover, he rendered it for posterity, recording one more major event in African-American history.

Lawrence’s own story began in 1917, when he was born in Atlantic City, N.J., to parents who themselves had left the South. After a childhood partially spent in foster homes, Lawrence was re-united with his mother in Harlem in 1930, at a time when African-American art was flourishing in New York City as part of the black cultural revival known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Art critic Leslie King-Hammond explains in the Lawrence retrospective Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence that the painter was more of a student of the Harlem Renaissance than a major contributor to it: The movement’s celebration of African-American history inspired Lawrence to use his racial heritage for subject matter, and the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Harlem encouraged his use of expressive techniques associated with early twentieth-century modernism. Lawrence favored, for example, bold colors, geometric patterns, and abstract representations of epochal events in black history as well as the experiences of Harlem streets. He painted, for instance, series of canvasses that offered visual biographies of abolitionists such as Douglass (1939) and Tubman (1940), and he created vivid images of urban life in “Street Orator’s Audience” (1936) and “The Butcher Shop” (1938).

His talents and themes attracted the attention of wealthy white patrons, and the showing of his 26-panel “The Migration of the Negro” in New York’s Downtown Gallery marked the first time a black artist crossed the mainstream art scene’s color barrier. However, the show’s opening date was itself portentous: December 9, 1941, just two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that began the United States’ participation in World War II.

Lawrence entered the Coast Guard in October 1943. After attending basic training in Curtis Bay, Md., Lawrence was initially assigned to St. Augustine, Fla. The painter was now a steward’s mate, responsible for serving meals at training facility for white officers. However, “The Migration of the Negro” had brought Lawrence national renown, and the base’s commanding officer, Capt. J. S. Rosenthal, offered space in his home so that his artistic steward could continue painting.

Lawrence’s next connection to African-American history began in 1944, when he was assigned to the SEA CLOUD. A year earlier, its white commanding officer, then-Lt. Carlton Skinner, desegregated the vessel, including opening all occupational specialties to the ship’s African-American crewmembers. Prior to this, black Coast Guardsmen were limited to working as stewards and did

Jacob Lawrence, “No. 2, Main Control Panel, Nerve Center of Ship” (1944; United States Coast Guard Museum, New London, Conn.)

not berth with whites. Skinner removed these barriers, and the harmony among the crew plus the ship’s superior performance evaluations demonstrated to the military that integration was not only possible, it was also desirable.

“I think everyone was really relieved that integration had finally come,” Lawrence told author Mike Tidwell in an interview later. “Segregation was such a burden to everyone, really. We were like a family on that ship.”

On board the SEA CLOUD, Lawrence’s reputation again preceded him. Skinner remembered how he “arrang[ed] for the ship’s funds to buy artist’s materials for him . . . and arranged his duty so that he had roughly half his normal time for his required seagoing duties-the other half he could devote to his art project.” The rest of Lawrence’s shipmates remember him as very congenial, but someone who took this new, now-official duty very seriously.

“He was just one of the crew,” says retired Coast Guard Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Robert Hammond, another member of the African-American crew of the SEA CLOUD. “But he would go to the engine room, go to the bridge, or be on deck with his sketch pad, drawing every day.”

Lawrence’s SEA CLOUD paintings reflect this interest in the crew at work. Similar to his pre-War images, he captured the gravitas of Coast Guardsmen doing routine things in remarkable contexts. “A man may never see combat, but he can be a very important person,” the painter explained. Consequently, he illustrated the stoic dignity of labor and maintenance in “Chipping the Mast” (1944) and “Painting the Bilge” (1944). Likewise, Lawrence depicted the elegant symmetry of technological pattern and form in the SEA CLOUD’s displays, including “No. 2, Main Control Panel, Nerve Center of Ship” (1944).

More than forty of these paintings were displayed as part of a solo exhibit at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in 1944, a first for not only a Coast Guardsman in uniform, but for an African-American as well. The exhibit was well received by the wartime public. Art Digest, for instance, commented on how Lawrence’s abstracts were “handsome in their simplified yet somehow sophisticated design.” Unfortunately, though, these paintings are also the subject of an art world mystery, if not tragedy. The canvasses were disbursed to Coast Guard units without documentation or were taken by service members as souvenirs, and the whereabouts of only a few are known today.

After the SEA CLOUD was decommissioned in November 1944, Lawrence was re-united with his previous commanding officer, Capt. Rosenthal, aboard the latter’s new command, the troop transport ship USS General Wilds P. Richardson. However, now Lawrence was a Public Relations Petty Officer 3rd Class and the ship’s artist, and he was free to devote all his time to drawing as

Lt. Carlton Skinner (second from right), commanding officer of the USS SEA CLOUD, and African-American members of his crew prior to the ship’s decommissioning in 1944. Jacob Lawrence stands to the right of Skinner. (Coast Guard Archive)

the vessel traveled to England, Italy, Spain, and Egypt.

Lawrence was discharged from the service in December 1945, but with the help of a Guggenheim fellowship, began work the next year on another group of images about his wartime experiences. Called simply “War,” the 14-painting series again represents the overlooked but meaningful aspects of life during the global conflict. The bold colors and oversized human figure of “War, No. 6: The Letter” (1946), for instance, highlight a man’s emotive body language and evoke the poignancy of receiving news from a far-away home. The racial egalitarianism that characterized Lawrence’s experience aboard the SEA CLOUD is also present in the series as well. “War, No. 7: On Leave” (1947) portrays white and black sailors drinking with each other in a bar during their liberty.

The “War” series does survive and is part of the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Likewise, Lawrence had a long and prosperous career following his Coast Guard service as one of America’s most recognizable painters. In addition to continuing to feature the occupational and cultural life of black Americans, Lawrence also created iconic images for the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1977 presidential inauguration of Jimmy Carter.

In a long life spent witnessing and documenting history, Lawrence recalled his Coast Guard service as one of its highlights: it was “a wonderful experience . . . one of the peak experiences in my life,” he told Charles Hollingsworth fifty years later. Cancer ended that talented life in June 2000. Nevertheless, Lawrence’s illustrations of the steps he took then toward racial equality in uniform-and of the contributions that other African-Americans made to our nation’s culture and history in general-adorn the walls of museums for future generations to remember.

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