Jacob Lawrence in Times Square: New York City’s heavily trafficked public art

Since we are a program that aims to encourage art and cultural expression in New York City, we will be posting about NYC public art and ways we interact with these works in the coming weeks. An earlier post mentioned an handful of NYC’s monumental sculptures, some notable architecture and a retrospective of Sol LeWitt’s work in City Hall Park, organized by MFTA recipient, Public Art Fund.

This post goes underground, to New York City’s most heavily trafficked subway station, Times Square-42 Street, which moved 58,422,597 riders through its corridors in 2010 according to MTA figures. No doubt tourists are visiting the station to take in the insane light show above, but hopefully they and locals alike take a moment to pause before Jacob Lawrence’s mosaic “New York in Transit.” The mosaic is Lawrence’s last public work and “evokes city life seen from an elevated train. [Its] shimmering and detailed surface pays tribute to the diversity and strength of New York City – its neighborhoods, cultural life, recreational pleasures, love of sports and, of course, its subway system” (MTA, Arts for Transit). If only 1/3 of these subway riders take a peek, then more people saw Lawrence’s work in 2010 than visited the top three museums in terms of 2009 attendance: Paris’ Louvre, London’s British Museum and NYC’s Metropolitan Museum.

Jacob Lawrence

Lawrence (b. 1917 in Atlantic City, NJ; d. 2000 Seattle) moved around a lot during his early childhood. In 1930, at the age of 13, Lawrence arrived in Harlem. There he attended an after school program at Utopia Children’s House, a community center–and (probably) the type of organization we could support with MFTA materials. At Utopia, Lawrence opted to take art classes led by Charles Alston (1907–77), a graduate of Columbia University (MFTA recipient), the supervisor of the Harlem Hospital Center murals (Harlem Hospital is an MFTA recipient) and first African-American to teach at both the Museum of Modern Art (MFTA recipient and donor) and the Art Students League (MFTA recipient and donor).

Later, Lawrence took classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, a WPA program that fostered and developed ideas of the Harlem Renaissance: The arts–visual arts, drama, poetry, fiction and music–were a means to express and authenticate the African-American experience. Lawrence was encouraged to see the world around him as art–a worldview that these posts will hopefully bolster–and to use a variety of artistic media. The readily-available, flat and fast drying poster paint he worked in at the workshop suited his artistic aims. His work comprised scenes of everyday life in Harlem (see “The Library” below), as well as major series devoted to black history.

Lawrence became the first African-American artist to have his work represented in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and his works are held in the permanent collections of many museums including the Phillips Collection, National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington, DC and locally at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum, among many others.

Detail from "The Library" (1960) by Jacob Lawrence. Tempera on fiberboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

The Library” (detail above), a painting of patrons reading in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, shows the remarkable art Lawrence realized and the vibrant public life he took as his subject. Don’t miss his work in Times Square!

Mosaics at Materials for the Arts

At MFTA we know a thing or two about working with readily-available materials. Below you will find mosaics made during our teacher-training courses. We are starting these week-long courses in July and while they are designed for teachers, anyone with an interest in making art can enroll.

A mosaic made with trim and notion from the MFTA warehouse.

Buttons, tiles and beads make up this mosaic. (Image: Barbara Korein)

Click here for information on teacher training, both for “P” In-service credit and as a non-credit participant.

Click here for an excellent resource on Jacob Lawrence from the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Another excellent resource from the Whitney Museum, New York, is available here.

Image “New York in Transit” via Flickr user mksfca, licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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