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When he had no roof under which to sleep,

from the park he conversed with the night

which he thought the mother of colored men.

 

 

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 action.

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 action.

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” (1941).

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

“Parson-on-Sunday” (preacher in the pulpit)

“Aunt Monday” (washing clothes)

“Sister Tuesday” (ironing)

“Mama-on-Wednesday” (mending)

“Gossip-on-Thursday” (visiting over the back fence)

“Cousin-on-Friday” (scrubbing the floor)

“Cooking-on-Saturday,” 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, much more.

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.

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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).

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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).

Negro Johnson

By Otto-Raul Gonzalez

Negro Johnson is a sculptor.

Lank dogs of poverty bit him in Harlem.

But his dreams were never shipwrecked

in the waters of renunciation.

He was porter, elevator boy, messenger,

telephone operator, model,

dishwasher in a hotel.

When he had no roof under which to sleep,

from the park he conversed with the night

which he thought the mother of colored men.

Hunger and cold. Two edges of the blade

that scraped his dark skin.

Negro Johnson never ran away.

In winter he sculptured with snow,

and his longing, vaporous dreams

were living forms, pure reality,

but only for minutes …

because an iconoclastic sun

dissolved his material

Negro Johnson received his pay

and a fine piece of marble he bought.

See him, one possessed, fingers and chisel;

in the dark garret

he is cutting a Saint Michael.

In the big city of New York

his sculpture he took to exhibit.

Negro Johnson smiles. And in the night

of his colored face

thirty-two stars shine

with satisfaction.

The dream, the dream has won;

on his chest they placed

a great medal of gold

in the great exposition.

He smiles. He smiles.

Now everyone knows that

Negro Johnson is a sculptor.

He was a porter, elevator boy, messenger,

telephone operator, model,

dishwasher in a hotel,

but always and above all,

Negro Johnson was a sculptor.

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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 Renaissance, the first encyclopedia devoted to the movement, West is a Contributing Writer to Contemporary American Women Poets: An A-Z Guide. West teaches African American Literature at Rutgers University.

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.

 

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Ancient African Nations

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