JACOB LAWRENCE • The Legend of John Brown

Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum Celebrates Black History Month with Paintings by Pioneer Artist and Free Concert by Monique Ella Rose on February 2nd

    icon Jan 24, 2023
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Set to align with February’s Black History Month the Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum at Saginaw Valley State University has opened an engaging and fascinating new exhibition titled “Jacob Lawrence: The Legend of John Brown from the Mott-Warsh Collection, which is currently on display through April and will also include a free concert by the immensely gifted Monique Ella Rose on February 2nd.

Pioneering African American artist Jacob Lawrence created The Legend of John Brown, his fifth series of history paintings, in 1941. The series tells the story of white abolitionist John Brown. Back in 1974 Lawrence was commissioned to produce a limited edition of screen prints of the series and the museum is now able to present that full print portfolio on loan from the Mott-Warsh Collection.

Using vibrant colors, story-telling precision, and powerful graphic images Lawrence explores the human condition, the African American experience, and and important part of American history. “We hope local schools, groups, and community members come tour this incredible record of our shared history, as Black history is truly American History,” states Megan McAdow, director of the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum.

“Lawrence was a pioneering African-American artist in that he was the first to have a gallery show presented in a noted New York gallery and went from nothing to stardom very quickly,” adds McAdow. “He was featured in Forbes magazine at the time and this series that consisted of 22 original paintings housed at the Detroit Institution of Arts is very fragile, so Lawrence was commissioned to make prints that could be shown to the public. This series we have on display is from the private Mott-Warsh collection and is truly an amazing series of artistic work and visual story-telling.”

“His style is very graphic and with each piece in this series Lawrence put enough information into each painting to know what he is saying,” reflects Curator of Education Andrea Ondish. “He was a very story oriented artist and would actually write a story-board, lay out his panels where he could see them at the same time, and then write the series like a novel and go in and illustrate them. He did several of these and is mostly known for his ‘Migration Series’ about the movement of African-Americans from the south to the north.”

With a singular style inspired by modern art, African art, print journalism, and popular film, Lawrence explained why he worked in this series format: “I wanted to tell a lot of things. This was the only way I could work and tell the complete story.”

John Brown was a controversial figure in American history for both Black & White communities. For this particular series Lawrence carefully researched John Brown, combining written scholarship with oral history and popular culture surrounding the white abolitionist icon.

“Brown advocated for violent uprisings, and he was executed for his failed insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859,” reflects McAdow.. “As a white abolitionist Brown took extreme and violent and sometimes chaotic measures to fight against slavery. As we know from other movements that included violence, people fall on different sides of the debate as to whether violence to necessary to expedite change, or whether it inhibits the amount of time it takes for real change to occur and could also be accomplished quicker in a peaceful manner.”

“In many ways the debate about John Brown reflects the debate between the approaches of Malcolm X versus Martin Luther King, and there were many books and also a Civil War song written about John Brown.  Lawrence called him ‘The Legend’."

According to Marshall Fredericks Museum Collection Manager, Geoff Haney, it was John Brown’s belief in the ‘Golden Rule’ that drove him. “He believed whole heartedly that no man should be enslaved. People called him a heretic and he would often go after people using gorilla tactics because of his belief that people regardless of color should be free.  He wouldn’t stop and was relentless. Brown also predates Lincoln just a little bit in terms of his opposition to slavery.”

“He was also the first American charged with treason in the United States,” adds Haney. “Brown led the charge on Harper’s Ferry and one of the prints in this series features 19-guys standing in place with their bayonets as the insurrectionists are coming over the hill. The way Lawrence portrays them it’s almost like the moment he is capturing is the one that says: Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, African American artists, intellectuals, and political leaders made pilgrimages to Harper’s Ferry and to Brown’s grave, while white historians of the time often dismissed Brown as an insane radical.

Previous painters had romanticized and sanitized his antislavery crusade. Lawrence instead explored the complexity of Brown’s biography, providing Brown’s lifelong fierce Christian piety as context for his militant devotion to the abolition of slavery during the last 22 years of his life.

Additionally, to coincide with this exhibition, the Museum is presenting a Free Concert with award-winning musician Monique Ella Rose - a genre-fusing singer/songwriter who is authentic and bold.  The recipient of several REVIEW Music Awards for outstanding Blues & Jazz Vocalist, her music is deeply rooted in Gospel, pure Soul, Jazz, and R&B with lyrics that are encouraging, uplifting, and speak from the heart.

The concert will be held on February 2 at 7:30 p.m. near the Museum at the Rhea Miller Recital Hall on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University. Following the performance, attendees are invited back to the Museum for an afterglow with free refreshments and a cash bar. 

Programming also includes a series of drop-in art workshops throughout the run of the exhibition as well as guest speakers on art and history. On February 11, 1-4pm the Museum will facilitate a FREE Drop-in Collage Art Workshop. Participants can create original artworks based on techniques seen in the series by Jacob Lawrence. 

And on February 22, 12-1pm the Museum will host “Commune @ Noon” where visitors can gather to learn from Dr. Jennifer Stinson, Associate Professor of History at SVSU, as she discusses “The Legend of John Brown” and the American Abolitionist Movement. Free snacks will be provided.

The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum is located on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University, 7400 Bay Road, University Center, MI. Museum hours are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (989) 964-7125.  For a full and up-to-date list of programming, visit the museum website at MarshallFredericks.org.


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