WSHM exhibits Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of Puget Sound’s first African American pioneer


The Washington State History Museum just reached into the vault and brought out one of the artistic gems of the state’s archives and art holdings: a five-panel set of paintings by the late, great Jacob Lawrence. “Collections Selections: Jacob Lawrence” runs through Jan. 20 of next year. This is a show to go see early and often. It is rare that one gets to see work by Lawrence up close and personal.

In 1972, Lawrence – then a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – was commissioned by the State Capital Museum in Olympia to create a set of paintings commemorating George Bush, the first African American to settle in in the Puget Sound region.

Of Jamaican and Irish ancestry, Bush led a life of adventure. He fought under Andrew Jackson in the war of 1812 and first laid eyes on the Pacific Northwest as a member of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Bush married late in life – at age 40 – and settled for a time in Missouri. He and his wife Isabella James, of German descent, would have six sons. Finding life in the South inhospitable, Bush organized a wagon train of several families (the others were white families) and they set out for the Oregon Territory and ended up as one of the first groups of settlers in this region. Bush established a farm hundreds of acres in the area around Tumwater called Bush Prairie. (Bush Middle School in Tumwater is also named after him.) When territorial laws forbade African Americans from ownership of land, Bush’s friends and neighbors petitioned congress to grant him ownership of his land.

Everything about this story testifies to the character of what must have been a very remarkable man. Bush must have been a charismatic, capable man that engendered trust, respect, friendship and loyalty among those who knew him. His eldest son, Owen, went on to become an award-winning wheat farmer and one of the early members of the state legislature.

The paintings are remarkable examples of Lawrence’s work. They are arranged to be read from right to left in order to recreate the sensation of a journey from east to west. The scenes are filled with dynamic images of people and animals. Bush is shown using his farming tools or shouldering his rifle. The series has a large central panel flanked on either side by two vertical panels. The central panel is a grand, equestrian portrait of Bush astride his red horse, facing into the blowing snow as the caravan crosses the continental divide. The painting resembles an icon of Saint George mounted on his charger. As I studied these paintings, I found a similarity to depictions of the story of Noah’s ark. The wagons themselves are shown without having any wheels, which amplifies the ark-like nature of them. The five panels are done in lush colors: rich greens, red-browns, buttery yellows and thick grays. The lively, interlocking shapes and forms are endlessly fascinating and animate the surfaces.

In addition to the original artwork, the exhibit includes some of the items owned by the Bush family and other members of the wagon train. There are photos of Lawrence working on the paintings in his studio and the letter that Lawrence sent to describe his commissioned artwork.

Lawrence adapted the visual language of cubism and expressionism (he called it “dynamic cubism”) and applied it to telling stories of the African American experience. His epic 60-panel series “The Great Migration,” which depicts the migration of blacks from the agricultural South to the industrialized North, is now housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

Himself a child of the Great Migration, Lawrence was brought up in the Northeast and learned to paint in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. After having won fame, Lawrence was offered a post as an art professor at University of Washington. He settled in Seattle in the early 1970s and was commissioned to do the George Bush paintings shortly after his arrival.

Do yourselves a favor and beat a path to the doors of WSHM to see this small, important show. These panels are not exhibited very often.

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