Missing in Action
Leslie Garland Bolling’s Witness to Humanity and Dignity
By Sandra L. West
By day, he held broom and mop. By
evening, knife and saw. By 1926, Leslie Garland Bolling
was the earliest African-American woodcarver to receive
national recognition in his lifetime.
The first black artist to exhibit
at the then-segregated Richmond Academy of Arts (now
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), Bolling helped create a
Southern arts school for “colored” youth with federal,
W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) funds.
He lived simply, widowed and
childless, in a sparse boardinghouse room, and carved
over 50 humble, honorable images of black peasant life,
brown-wood depictions of an innocent, sweet time that
was not without fierce racial pressure, capturing the
attention of art historians and arts patrons. Once the
darling of the Harmon Foundation during the Harlem
Renaissance era, a full century after his birth
Bolling’s celebrity is nonexistent. And, most of his
passionately-sought-after sculpture is missing in
Bolling’s vital statistics mirror
memorable, horrific moments in black history. He was
born to Clinton and Mary Bolling in Virginia’s Surry
County, in the hamlet of Dendron, on August or September
16, 1898, when the Emancipation Proclamation was 35
years young. He entered Virginia Union University in
1919, as “The Red Summer of 1919” raged to destroy $6
million in black businesses and property and thousands
of priceless lives. He died in New York in 1955, when
the historic Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott rolled into
His woodcarving and drawing
activities began in his native Surry County, where soft,
female poplar trees dotted the landscape. As a child he
“always loved trees.” His childhood friends noticed and
talked about “…the funny little things” he carved. His
artistry was not fully realized or polished until after
he studied at two black colleges, neither of which had
an arts curriculum. In 1916 he attended Hampton Normal
and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University),
which was home, then and now, to black upward mobility,
and when there was a fledgling, primitive, arts museum.
In 1919 – the year horrendous race
riots erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Harlem, New York –
Bolling began a college preparatory high school course
in the Academic Department of Richmond’s Virginia Union
University (VUU). In addition to Latin and Greek,
Algebra and Geometry, Biblical Literature and readings
in Longfellow’s Evangeline, this small, black, Baptist
school offered Manual Training: “… mechanical and
freehand drawing, designing, the use of tools in wood
and iron work and blacksmith.” This course that Bolling
studied for four years may reveal why his
woodcarving/sculpture had the level of sophistication
that it did.
Bolling graduated from VUU in June
1924, gained employment as a porter at Richmond’s
Everett Waddey Company stationary store, and made art.
He was an original. Folk art historian Regina Perry
wrote in the St. James Guide to Black Artists that,
“There is nothing in the history of American art that
compares with Bolling’s works. They bear no relationship
to the West African tradition of wood carving, and they
are as fresh and original as the Negro spirituals that
grew out of slave work songs.”
With a simple jackknife, Leslie
Bolling re-created the rhythm and piety of black life,
even as that life was heavily ordained by a social
system that refused to admit to the quality of black
humanity or initiative, and offered them no part of the
American Dream. He carved “Red Cap,” a porter with
baggage. He made twin statuettes of “President and Mrs.
Franklin D. Roosevelt” and a demure bust of contralto
“Marian Anderson,” all in 1940, and made a rare
political statement for democracy in “Save America”
His benchmark creation is a series
called Days of the Week. The seven pieces show black
people involved in weekly community and domestic tasks.
The series includes
(preacher in the pulpit)
“Aunt Monday” (washing
(visiting over the back fence)
(scrubbing the floor)
with a turkey going in the oven.
The series documents
African-American folk culture and values. Bolling
chronicles the time when black people had little in the
way of material things and could profess to no evil
liberties, but were spiritually solid and adamantly
disciplined about never washing on Sunday or ironing
only on Tuesday. They cooked the Sunday meal on Saturday
because Sunday was spent on their knees in church,
praying to the Almighty. “Gossip on Thursday” references
the era when domestic servants were given only Thursdays
off. This female workforce was known as “Thursdays
Girls.” “Aunt Monday,” a “Negro” washerwoman, was an
icon and an image of family stability, so much that Dr.
Carter G. Woodson, the “father of black history,”
reverently wrote about her in “The Negro Washerwoman, A
Vanishing Figure” for the July 1930 edition of The
Journal of Negro History.
In addition to woodcarving, the
unassuming, bespeckled Bolling was an institution
builder. In 1938, he helped to create an arts school for
“colored” youth, the Craig House Art Center in the
Church Hill section of Richmond. Bolling taught wood
carving at the still-standing national landmark. His
involvement with Craig House indicates that he was an
important artist, that segregated Richmond’s white
community valued him as an artist, and that the
substantial influence of the Harlem Renaissance spread
beyond Chicago and Harlem, going behind and even
flourishing behind the “cotton curtain.”
His work did not go unrecognized or
unheralded. He attracted the attention of The William
Cox Gallery in New York; the Harmon Foundation; Howard
University art historian, critic and professor James
Amos Porter; Howard University art professor James V.
Herring; and arts patron Carl Van Vechten. The Fifth
Avenue gallery represented the sculptor until his death.
Bolling won many prizes from the
Harmon Foundation, the 1922-1967 organization designed
to sponsor and nurture the works of African-American
artists. Porter and Herring secured important
exhibitions for him throughout the country, notably the
Exhibition of Works by Negro Artists at the National
Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where he showed “The
Boxer,” and the 1934 exhibition at the National Museum
of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, sponsored
by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and
History where “Salome, The Dancer” was on display. Van
Vechten gave him a one-man show in 1928, in 1937 Cox
Gallery sponsored him in a program entitled “Whittling
Works of Leslie Garland Bolling,” and he won a prize in
1942 sponsored by Science & Mechanic Magazine.
His technique was as simple and
uncluttered as his rented room. A block of wood.
Carvings between twelve and twenty-four inches high.
Slow, sure. Work filled with expressions and moods.
Bolling did not sand his sculpture
until the tool marks are lost. Most woodworkers during
the 1930s did this during the national revival of
whittling and woodcarving, but Bolling just applied a
light wax, allowing life to breathe through.
Of his approximately 51 pieces,
almost all appear to be lost. Perry wrote, “Most of the
museums and galleries that are recorded as having
exhibited or purchased his works during the 1930s have
no record of their existence or list them as lost. Thus,
attempts to locate Bolling’s wood carvings have, except
for a few cases, been unsuccessful.” Some images were
sold to European patrons, courtesy of Van Vechten’s
involvement. “Cousin-on-Friday” is at the Virginia
Museum of Fine Arts. “Woman’s Head” is at Yale.
Bolling’s sculptures commanded $20 to $200 per piece,
though today, they are priceless and would demand much,
As the work vanished, so did his
notoriety. It is not clear exactly when Bolling moved to
New York – possibly right after World War II – though he
did exhibit at the State Teachers College in Indiana,
Pennsylvania in 1950. He possibly resided in Harlem. He
died in New York on September 27, 1955. He was brought
back home to Virginia, funeralized at A.D. Price Funeral
Home in Richmond’s historic Jackson Ward and buried in
Woodland Cemetery. He did not live a long time, but in
that time he thoughtfully placed his people’s humanity
and dignity on the map for all to witness.
* * *
Additional Reference Sources
Design and Figure Carving
by E.J. Tangarman (New York:
Dover Publications, 1964). This popular art book
includes several photos of the “Days of the Week” series
and “Red Cap.”
Against the Odds: The Artists of the Harlem
Renaissance. This book about the Harmon Foundation
includes one photo of Bolling’s work.
Exhibition of Productions by Negro Artists (New York,
Harmon Foundation, 1933).
Negro Artists: An Illustrated Review of Their
Achievements (New York: Harmon Foundation, 1935).
* * *
Leslie Garland Bolling’s genius and the
genius of similarly situated black artists who wrestle
with institutional racism is recalled in a poem, “Negro
Johnson,” written by Otto-Raul Gonzalez, translated by
Rachel Loughridge and published in Phylon (1943).
By Otto-Raul Gonzalez
Johnson is a sculptor.
Lank dogs of
poverty bit him in Harlem.
dreams were never shipwrecked
waters of renunciation.
porter, elevator boy, messenger,
in a hotel.
When he had
no roof under which to sleep,
park he conversed with the night
thought the mother of colored men.
cold. Two edges of the blade
his dark skin.
Johnson never ran away.
In winter he
sculptured with snow,
longing, vaporous dreams
forms, pure reality,
but only for
Johnson received his pay
and a fine
piece of marble he bought.
See him, one
possessed, fingers and chisel;
in the dark
cutting a Saint Michael.
In the big
city of New York
sculpture he took to exhibit.
Johnson smiles. And in the night
the dream has won;
on his chest
medal of gold
in the great
Johnson is a sculptor.
He was a
porter, elevator boy, messenger,
in a hotel,
and above all,
Negro Johnson was a sculptor.
* * *
|Sandra L. West, a member of The Harlem
Writers Guild, published a memoir What’s
In A Name, Ghana Mae Jane?
in the Spring/Summer 2005 edition of Obsidian
III: Literature of the African Diaspora. Co-author of
Encyclopedia of the Harlem
first encyclopedia devoted to the movement, West is a Contributing
Contemporary American Women Poets: An A-Z
Guide. West teaches African American Literature at Rutgers
Sandra L. West recently published
an article about Newark (NJ) Mayor Cory Booker’s
Transition Team in Positive Community Magazine (June
2006). She became interested in Bolling when she lived
in Richmond and taught at Virginia Union University.
* * *
* * * * *
Negro Comrades of the Crown
African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. Before Emancipation
By Gerald Horne
Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, said, the American revolt of 1776 against British rule “was basically a successful revolt of racist settlers. It was akin to Rhodesia, in 1965, assuming that Ian Smith and his cabal had triumphed. It was akin to the revolt of the French settlers in Algeria, in the 1950s and 1960s, assuming those French settlers had triumphed.” Dr. Horne explores the racist roots on the American Revolution in his new book, Negroes of the Crown. “It was very difficult to construct a progressive republic in North America after what was basically a racist revolt,” said Horne. “The revolt was motivated in no small part by the fact that abolitionism was growing in London…. This is one of the many reasons more Africans by an order of magnitude fought against the rebels in 1776, than fought alongside them.”In this path-breaking book, Horne rewrites the history of slave resistance by placing it for the first time in the context of military and diplomatic wrangling between Britain and the United States.
* * *
The Warmth of Other Suns
The Epic Story of America's Great
By Isabel Wilkerson
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a
sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi
for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin
was falsely accused of stealing a white
man's turkeys and was almost beaten to
death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling,
a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem
after learning of the grove owners'
plans to give him a "necktie party" (a
lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster
made his trek from Louisiana to
California in 1953, embittered by "the
absurdity that he was doing surgery for
the United States Army and couldn't
operate in his own home town." Anchored
to these three stories is Pulitzer
Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's
magnificent, extensively researched
study of the "great migration," the
exodus of six million black Southerners
out of the terror of Jim Crow to an
"uncertain existence" in the North and
Wilkerson deftly incorporates
sociological and historical studies into the novelistic
narratives of Gladney,
Starling, and Pershing settling in new
lands, building anew, and often finding
that they have not left racism behind.
The drama, poignancy, and romance of a
classic immigrant saga pervade this
book, hold the reader in its grasp, and
resonate long after the reading is done.
* * *
Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change
By John Lewis
The Civil Rights Movement gave rise to the protest culture we know today, and the experiences of leaders like Congressman Lewis have never been more relevant. Now, more than ever, this nation needs a strong and moral voice to guide an engaged population through visionary change. Congressman John Lewis was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a key role in the struggle to end segregation. Despite more than forty arrests, physical attacks, and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. He is the author of his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of a Movement, and is the recipient of numerous awards from national and international institutions, including the Lincoln Medal; the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage” Lifetime Achievement Award (the only one of its kind ever awarded); the NAACP Spingarn Medal; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, among many others.
* * * *
The New New Deal
The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era
By Michael Grunwald
Time senior correspondent Michael Grunwald tells the secret history of the stimulus bill, the purest distillation of Change We Can Believe In, a microcosm of Obama’s policy successes and political failures. Though it is reviled by the right and rejected by the left, it really is a new New Deal, larger than FDR’s and just as transformative. It prevented an imminent depression, while jump-starting Obama’s long-term agenda. The stimulus is pouring $90 billion into clean energy, reinventing the way America is powered and fueled; it includes unprecedented investments in renewables, efficiency, electric cars, a smarter grid, cleaner coal, and more. It’s carrying health care into the digital era. Its Race to the Top initiative may be the boldest education reform in U.S. history. It produced the biggest middle-class tax cuts in a generation, a broadband initiative reminiscent of rural electrification, and an overhaul of the New Deal’s unemployment insurance system. It’s revamping the way government addresses homelessness, fixes infrastructure, and spends money.
Grunwald reveals how Republicans have obscured these
achievements through obstruction and distortion.
The stimulus launched a genuine national
comeback. It also saved millions of jobs, while
creating legacies that could rival the Hoover Dam:
the world’s largest wind farm, a
new U.S. battery industry, a new high-speed rail
network, the world’s highest-speed Internet network.
Its main legacy, like the New Deal’s, will be
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
24 June 2012