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"What did I do to be so black and blue?" (1).

"What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?" (1)

--Louis Armstrong

"Our homes were very decorative, full of ... pattern ... color.... The people used this as a means of brightening their life," said Jacob Lawrence Jacob Lawrence (September 7, 1917 - June 9, 2000) was an African American painter; he was married to fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight. Life
Lawrence is probably among the best-known twentieth century African American painters, a distinction also shared by Romare Bearden.
, attributing his love of vibrant color design to his youth in Harlem (1). When asked if anyone in his family was artistically inclined, he would say no, "It's only in retrospect that I realized I was surrounded by art. You'd walk Seventh Avenue and look in the windows and you'd see all these colors in the depths of the Depression, all these colors!" (1). "Most of my work depicts events from the many Harlems that exist throughout the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area. . This is my genre. My surroundings. The people I know ... the happiness, tragedies, and the sorrows of mankind ..." (2).

Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey “Atlantic City” redirects here. For other uses, see Atlantic City (disambiguation).
Atlantic City is a city in Atlantic County, New Jersey, USA. Famous for its boardwalk and casino gambling, it is a resort community located on Absecon Island on the coast of the
, "But I know nothing about it," he always said, because his family soon moved, to Pennsylvania (3). He moved again in his early teens, with his mother, after his parents separated. "And we came to New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
 and of course this was a completely new visual experience" (3). Lawrence showed artistic talent at an early age. "I liked design.... I used to do things like rugs by seeing the pattern ... in very bright primary and secondary colors ... and papier-mache masks ... not for play or anything ... I just liked to make them.... My first exposure to art which I didn't realize was even art at the time was at an after-school settlement house.... The Utopia Children's Settlement House" (3).

"I never saw an art gallery until I was about eighteen years of age.... And going to the settlement house I was exposed to arts and crafts arts and crafts, term for that general field of applied design in which hand fabrication is dominant. The term was coined in England in the late 19th cent. as a label for the then-current movement directed toward the revivifying of the decorative arts. ; soap carving, leather work, woodwork and painting ..." (3). In the early 1930s, Depression relief programs sprang up all over the United States. Lawrence met Augusta Savage, already a well-known sculptor, at a center across the street from where he lived. He met writers Alain Locke, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison and worked with many prominent artists of the day, Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Henry Bannarn.

Encouraged by Augusta Savage, he participated in the Works Progress Administration's Federal Arts Project, a program founded in 1935 to create jobs in the arts, "... [I]t was like a very informal schooling. You were able to ask questions of people who had more experience ... about technical things in painting" (3). For inspiration, he visited the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library New York Public Library, free library supported by private endowments and gifts and by the city and state of New York. It is the one of largest libraries in the world.  and walked 60 blocks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lack of academic training did not thwart Lawrence's artistic development. Rather, his individual style, borne of his personal view of the world and nourished by the community around him, flourished early and well. His flat patterns and colors and bold narrative scenes showed the influence of Mexican painters Jose Clemente Orozco Noun 1. Jose Clemente Orozco - Mexican painter noted for his monumental murals (1883-1949)
Jose Orozco, Orozco
, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera, and of Polish artist Kathe Kollwitz, all of whom espoused a social realist philosophy.

At age 21, Lawrence attracted attention with his series of 41 paintings on Toussaint Louverture (c. 1743-1803), a hero of the Haitian Revolution. He read voraciously and researched his topics thoroughly. He painted a story over a series of panels planned and executed as a cluster. Each scene was outlined in pencil, each color applied to all panels simultaneously to ensure consistent tonal quality across the series (4).

"The Human subject is the most important thing. My work is abstract in the sense of having been designed and composed, but it is not abstract in the sense of not having human content ... I want to communicate. I want the idea to strike right away" (2). Lawrence freed his figures of detail, exacting the essence, which he punctuated with saturated color recalling Henri Matisse, and he repeated patterns and breaks, creating a rhythmic quality reminiscent of jazz syncopations. In gouache gouache (gwäsh): see watercolor painting.

Opaque watercolour. Also known as poster paint, designer's colour, and body colour, it differs from transparent watercolour in that the pigments are bound by liquid glue, which is
 and tempera tempera (tĕm`pərə), painting method in which finely ground pigment is mixed with a solidifying base such as albumen, fig sap, or thin glue. , he recreated the "hard, bright, and brittle" feel of Harlem during the Great Depression (2).

The work that brought Lawrence national recognition was The Migration of the Negro, a series of 60 panels recounting the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to northern urban centers. The series was featured in Fortune magazine in 1941. He continued to paint for decades, at times doubting the strength of his style within modernism and questioning the influence of popularity on his work. He taught at the Pratt Institute, the New School for Social Research New School for Social Research: see New School Univ.  in New York, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (or School of Art) is a nine week summer artists residency located in Skowhegan, Maine. It is not a traditional school, but rather was founded in 1947 by artists as a retreat for artists.  in Maine, and the University of Washington in Seattle. When he died at 82, Lawrence the chronicler of major cultural events of the 19th and 20th centuries had created an American aesthetic, and his expressive style, crafted in Harlem workshops, had made a lasting impression.

In Marionettes, on this month's cover, Lawrence revisited a topic addressed in The Dancing Doll (1947), an earlier work he had described as "mostly autobiographical" (5).

Marionettes, controlled with strings by a puppeteer from above, predate live theater. They were found in the tombs of ancient Egypt and the works of Archimedes and Plato.

Their inherent inability to stand alone makes marionettes an irresistible artistic and literary metaphor. In Invisible Man (1947), his epic of self-discovery, Ralph Ellison describes his encounter with a marionette marionette: see puppet.

Puppet figure manipulated from above by strings attached to a wooden cross or control. The figure, also called a string puppet, is usually manipulated by nine strings, attached to each leg, hand, shoulder, and ear
, "I'd seen nothing like it before. A grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper with thin flat cardboard disks forming its head and feet and which some mysterious mechanism was causing to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion, a dance that was completely detached from the black, mask-like face mask-like face Mask A hypomimic, expressionless physiognomy or complete lack of facial affect, a finding characteristic of Parkinson's disease, which may be seen in depression, facioscapulohumeral-type muscular dystrophy, infantile botulism, Möbius' syndrome, " (6).

Viewed en masse at the bottom of the painting, Lawrence's marionettes seem dwarfed under the dark backdrop and drooping droop ¬†
v. drooped, droop·ing, droops

1. To bend or hang downward: "His mouth drooped sadly, pulled down, no doubt, by the plump weight of his jowls" 
 tents, the inevitable strings a reminder of their attachment to a set. In what seems a makeshift theater, they await the next move. To paint the lifeless dolls, the artist was prompted by social ills, which strip people of control over their lives, causing them to withdraw because, as Ellison put it, "... ain't nothing I can do but let whatever is gonna happen, happen" (6).

As with all his work, Lawrence touched a universal nerve: human vulnerability against forces beyond one's control. "I'm so forlorn, Life's just a thorn/My heart is torn/Why was I born?" lamented Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), speaking for Lawrence and for all of us. Faced with overwhelming social injustice or with recurring insults of a more biologic nature--microbial resistance to drugs, mutating viruses, emerging prions, migrating hazards--we may at times seem little more than hapless marionettes, caught in a degrading tangle at the foot of a large set.


(1.) Collins AF. Jacob Lawrence: art builder. Art Am. 1988;2:130-5.

(2.) Stella P. Modern storytellers: Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold. In: Timeline of art history. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2000.

(3.) Oral history interview with Jacob Lawrence conducted by Carroll Greene for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, 1968. [cited 2007 Apr 9]. Available from oralhistories/transcripts/lawen68.htm

(4.) Wernick R. Jacob Lawrence: art as seen through a people's history. Smithsonian. 1987;18:57.

(5.) Lewis S. African American art African American art is a broad term describing the visual arts of the American black community. Influenced by various cultural traditions, including those of Africa, Europe and the Americas, traditional African American art forms include the range of plastic arts, from  and artists. Berkeley (CA): University of California Press "UC Press" redirects here, but this is also an abbreviation for University of Chicago Press

University of California Press, also known as UC Press, is a publishing house associated with the University of California that engages in academic publishing.
; 1990.

(6.) Ellison R. Invisible man. New York: Signet Books; 1952.

(1) Lyrics, Andy Razaf. Music, "Fats" Waller and Harry Brooks.

Polyxeni Potter, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), agency of the U.S. Public Health Service since 1973, with headquarters in Atlanta; it was established in 1946 as the Communicable Disease Center. , Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Address for correspondence: Polyxeni Potter, EID EID Emerging Infectious Diseases (journal)
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 Journal, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Rd, Mailstop D61, Atlanta, GA 30333, USA; email: PMP See point-to-multipoint and portable media player.

PMP - Portable Media Player
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Title Annotation:ABOUT THE COVER
Author:Potter, Polyxeni
Publication:Emerging Infectious Diseases
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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