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"My Jacob Lawrence Story"

When I was in the ninth grade, our teacher gave us an assignment to research and write about accomplished African Americans. How did they live their lives, and what do they have to say to us, as young people growing up in Newark, New Jersey? The new term at the time was not African American, of course, but Black, capitalized.

She wrote the names of about 30 noted Black Americans on scripts of paper and put them in a jar. Each of us reached into the jar and picked out a paper. Whatever name we picked, that was the person we were to research and write about. I was hoping for someone famous, like George Washington Carver or Harriett Tubman. When I pulled my hand out of the jar, the name was “Jacob Lawrence.” 

Who was Jacob Lawrence, I wanted to know. I had never heard of him. I asked the teacher if I could pick another, and she said No, I had to write about the one I picked.

Since this was long before the internet, I trooped over to the library and waded through the card catalog to find information about this Jacob Lawrence. 

He was, I learned, a Harlem Renaissance painter. I knew Harlem was across the river in New York, but I’m not sure I knew what a renaissance was. But I liked the colors and contours and abstractions he created. I found he had just recently relocated to Seattle and was an art professor at the University of Washington. I looked at a map of the United States and saw Seattle way across it, on the far side, as far as you can go. I thought, wow, he’s a long ways from New York. I wondered what it would be like there.

Over the years, I came to appreciate Jacob Lawrence more, and I studied him on my own. I think there is some of his influence in my earlier works, and maybe it’s still there.

In the late 1990s, I determined to go to interior design school and earn a degree. I looked at the Art Institutes around the country, and I saw there was a school in Seattle. I saw Seattle for the first time in 1998 when I interviewed at the Art Institute of Seattle on Elliott Avenue, overlooking Elliott Bay.  I fell in love with Seattle at first sight. It didn’t hurt either that Jacob Lawrence went west almost 30 years earlier and was accepted as a professor of art at the state’s largest university, at a time when minority opportunities were still severely limited. In May of 1999, I moved to Seattle and started school.  

Early the following year, Lawrence was having what turned out to be his last show, at Frances Seder Gallery on Greenwood Avenue in Seattle. I had to go see him, and I met him and he had the kindest eyes. He was in a wheel chair by then. I shook his hand and he held it for a moment and I told him he was my inspiration, and the reason I came out to Seattle to paint, and he said that was the kindest thing he had ever heard. The man whose name I drew from the jar was the man here before me, and the circle was complete.