Augusta Savage

The Shape of a Sculptor's Life


By Marilyn Nelson

Formats and Prices




$11.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 25, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A powerful biography in poems​ about a trailblazing artist and a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance—with an afterword by the curator of the Art & Artifacts Division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Augusta Savage was arguably the most influential American artist of the 1930s. A gifted sculptor, Savage was commissioned to create a portrait bust of W.E.B. Du Bois for the New York Public Library. She flourished during the Harlem Renaissance, and became a teacher to an entire generation of African American artists, including Jacob Lawrence, and would go on to be nationally recognized as one of the featured artists at the 1939 World’s Fair. She was the first-ever recorded Black gallerist. After being denied an artists’ fellowship abroad on the basis of race, Augusta Savage worked to advance equal rights in the arts. And yet popular history has forgotten her name. Deftly written and brimming with photographs of Savage’s stunning sculpture, this is an important portrait of an exceptional artist who, despite the limitations she faced, was compelled to forge a life through art and creativity.




Portrait of a Baby

Leap-Year Baby

Augusta Christine Fells, 2/29/1892

Born on a date that in most years doesn’t exist—

the only recluse of the calendar—

born on the bonus day, the extra day,

that falls every fourth year, for some reason

most people can’t explain or understand.

To age by leap years, one to every four

years aged by ordinary people who

sprint toward their end. A leaper’s free to choose

to celebrate on February twenty-eighth,

or March first, or February twenty-ninth,

thus choosing how old, how special, to be.

Leap-year babies believe they are unique.

They know they’re born to make something happen.

But all of us are born knowing that. Right?

First Duckling

Gus Fells, 1898

from squish

to a formable ball,

head, body

wings, tail, feathers detailed by fingernails,

and to the pond-seeing eyes, the slightly smiling beak

coming closer and closer to a heartbeat in the caught

breath of a colored girl who feels like God

Fifth Duckling

Garden Figure

Birth Order

Augusta, born seventh of fourteen

The firstborn child is a perfectionist.

The second child is a people-pleaser.

The third child is a little hellion.

The fourth child feels somehow different.

The fifth child is a perpetual sidekick.

The sixth child seethes with secret rebellion.

The seventh child is beaten for making art.

The eighth child wins the blue ribbon for charm.

The ninth is shy; the tenth an extrovert.

The eleventh child can disappear at will.

The seventh child is beaten for making art.

The twelfth and thirteenth children are a set.

The fourteenth child is the baby for eighty years.

The seventh child is beaten for making art.

The Figure of a Frog

for Augusta Savage


The child made tiny somethings from pinches

of the clay she found right in the backyard.

Enough ducklings for a duckling parade,

enough little bunnies and mice to bring

the other children to squeals of delight.

A large family of small laughing pigs.

Banjo-playing, fiddling, cakewalking dogs.

But the God of her father sent Moses

down from the mountain with that Thou Shalt Not

against making images. Her father’s

fear of his God drove him to search for her

secret hiding places, to cut switches,

to beat the living daylights of art’s sin

out of her, a man beating back wildfire.

Girl with Pigtails

Fingers Remember

No Clay

While the Whole White World was at war

the Fellses grabbed the golden ring

of opportunity and moved

lock, stock, barrel, kit and caboodle

a few steps up to West Palm Beach.

There was a colored high school there, and jobs.

Gussie went back to school. Studied,

learned. Peace reigned in her father’s house.

Birth siblings and siblings-in-law,

nieces and nephews aplenty,

a table grace before each meal,

a nice young man to walk out with:

She was almost happy. Almost

forgot art, forgave the beatings.

But she could find no clay. No clay.

Strut, Miss Savage

What girl wouldn’t marry a guy

with such a terrific name? Who,

given a choice, wouldn’t toss off

her meh surname, like a wedding

bouquet, and become a Savage

from now on in? To choose her name,

and to create her own future,

to name herself herself, set free

of all of her past but the love.

Augusta Savage. Mrs. James

Savage. Mrs. Fierce. Mrs. Strong.

Miss Tiger with the secret smile,

in her own home, with her own man

who has vowed to love her daughter

as if she were his, and who stopped

the wagon at Chase Pottery

and waited while his wife ran in

to introduce herself, who jumped

out and ran to help her carry

the buckets of clay Mr. Chase

had given her. Me. Augusta

Savage. My new name, my true life.

Augusta Savage


Before I knead, clay

is white canvas, empty page,

a night without dreams.

Little warming lump,

you look back out of my palm,

ask me for a face.

Shapes I remember

with the tips of my fingers

emerge, and confess.

The duckling parade

I made and Papa destroyed


  • Praise for Augusta Savage:
    A Kirkus Best Book of the Year​
    A School Library Journal Best of the Year
    A CCBC Children's Choice
    A CBC Teacher Favorite Award Winner
    A Claudia Lewis Award Winner for Poetry by the Bank Street College of Education 
    A BACLA-SLJ Honor Award Winner for Nonfiction
    An Ohioana Book Award Finalist 

    A Junior Library Guild Selection

    * "A stunning portrait of artistic genius and Black history in America."

    Booklist, starred review
  • * "A wonderful addition to young people’s literature on African American artists."

    Horn Book, starred review
  • * "In a rich biography in verse, Nelson (A is for Oboe) gives voice to the Black sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962), a key Harlem Renaissance figure."

    Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • * "Nelson’s arresting poetry, which is accompanied by photographs of Savage’s work, dazzles as it experiments with form. … A lyrical biography from a master of the craft."

    Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • * "A master poet breathes life and color into this portrait of a ­historically significant sculptor and her remarkable story."—School Library Journal, starred review
  • Praise for A Wreath for Emmett Till:

    * "A towering achievement."

    Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • * "This memorial to the lynched teen is in the Homeric tradition of poet-as-historian . . . This chosen formality brings distance and reflection to readers, but also calls attention to the horrifically ugly events."

    School Library Journal, starred review
  • "These poems are a powerful achievement that teens and adults will want to discuss together."

    Booklist, ALA starred review
  • "A moving elegy indeed." —The Bulletin

On Sale
Jan 25, 2022
Page Count
128 pages

Marilyn Nelson

About the Author

Marilyn Nelson is the author of many award-winning books, including Carver: A Life in Poems, which was a National Book Award finalist, a Newbery Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and received the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. She is also the author of A Wreath for Emmett Till, which garnered the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, a Coretta Scott King Honor, a Printz Honor, and a Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor. She lives in Connecticut.

Tammi Lawson is the curator of the Art and Artifacts Division at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the steward of a collection of over fifteen thousand items that visually document the Black Diaspora. The Schomburg also houses the largest collection of art by Augusta Savage in a public institution. The New York Public Library recently awarded Lawson the 2020 Bertha Franklin Feder Award for Excellence in Librarianship.

Learn more about this author