Times were hard. The year was 1933, and America sagged under the ongoing impact of the Great Depression. Unemployment was high, and many businesses had closed their doors for good. Among the institutions hit hard by the worldwide economic downturn was Howard University in Washington, DC. Among the many students impacted by the crisis was talented young painter and Fine Arts major, Gwendolyn Knight, who was forced to leave Howard and return to her New York home.
Ironically, this unfortunate turn proved fortuitous. In Harlem, the Barbados-born Knight became active in the vibrant local arts community, engaging in workshops while studying painting and sculpture at the Harlem Community Art Center under Augusta Savage. Savage mentored Knight, furthering her exploration and promotion of African American culture. Simultaneously, Knight associated with the leading writers and activists of the Harlem Renaissance including Langston Hughes and Claude McKay while networking with emerging artists like Romare Bearden.
In 1934, a year after leaving Howard, Knight joined the Works Progress Administration Mural Project where she met rising young painter, Jacob Lawrence. The two would inspire each other as artists, with Lawrence focused on narrative paintings of African American history and culture, and Knight dedicated to portraiture, still life and urbanity. In 1941, the couple married. Five years later, they accepted the invite of German art educator, Josef Albers, to teach at the top avant-garde school, Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
In the 1950s, Knight and Lawrence returned to New York to pursue their art. And in the mid-1960s, they traveled to Nigeria as Lawrence’s star continued to shine brightly over the art world.
But for all of Lawrence’s acclaim, Knight was a star in her own right, even if the larger art world had yet to notice. In 1976, five years after the couple relocated to Seattle for Lawrence’s teaching position at the University of Washington, the National Links association featured Knight in a one-person show that put the larger art world on notice. The talented 62-year-old secured gallery representation as several major museums began acquiring her work and, for the next three decades, Knight won numerous awards while exhibiting at such venues as the Seattle Museum of Art, the Francine Seders Gallery in Seattle, and the Virginia Lacy Jones Gallery at Atlanta University.
In 2000, a year before Lawrence died, the couple founded the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation to support young and emerging artists. In 2003, the widely acclaimed “Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight” was presented at the Tacoma Art Museum.
Gwendolyn Knight died in Seattle on Feb. 18, 2005. She was 91.
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