As a budding artist at age 13, Jacob Lawrence used to sit on the curb at 125th Street and Lennox Avenue in Harlem, checking out a new world of black culture and intellect that came to be known as the Negro Renaissance.
The year was 1930, and Lawrence had just come up from Philadelphia, the son of domestic laborers seeking what the national black grapevine had telegraphed as "the good life."
From the dusty curbside, Lawrence not only found the good life - and the bad life - he captured it, put it down on 10 cent rolls of wrapping paper with poster marking pens, memorializing the shape, the texture, the feel and the pace of this exotic mecca called Harlem from which black consciousness emerged.
On the streets, orators preached, poets wrote, musicians played, and hustlers shot pool and each other. Through it all, Lawrence painted - not so much what he saw as what he felt - and when others saw what he had done they were moved.
"He is particularly sensitive to the life about him, the joy, the suffering, the weakness, the strength of the people he sees everyday," says Charles H. Alston, an art instructor who introduced Lawrence's first one-man exhibition which was sponsored by the James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild in 1939.
Lawrence was 22 years old at the time.
Called the "dean of America's black painters" by a prominent art critic in 1972, Lawrence was in Washington yesterday to be installed on the National Council on the Arts, the governing board of the National Endowment for the Arts.
On Thursday, a reception was held for Lawrence at Howard University, where some of his former students now teach. In attendance were prominent artists and art teachers such as Billy Harris of the University of the District of Columbia, Sam Gilliam, Elizabeth Catlett, Ed Love. James Phillips and Skuder Boghassian.
"He provided a model for black cultural expression, and all of us acknowledged his influence in that disrection," says A. B. Spellman, a poet and art critic who works for the National Endowment for the Arts.
In his suite at the Mayflower Hotel, Lawrence seems a tinge uncomfortable trying to explain his work and himself in words.
"I try to get the way I feel on paper," he says with a smile and a shrug of the shoulder. "I don't really have time to talk about it." Without apologies, he takes the reporter's notebook and pen, and begins to sketch a carpenter at work, part of a theme he has been working on for the past 10 years titled "The Builders".
"I'm not perpectual," Lawrence says, pausing for a few minutes while working on the scene. He soon seems engrossed in the sketch. Then he seems to remember that he is being interviewed.
"What I work with is ideas. I've been at it for over 45 years, so i figure, I have a little more to work with, you know, ideas." he says, smilling again.
Lawrence, who looks much younger than 61, is of medium build with dark, smooth skin and closely cut hair. His paintings sometimes seem like caricatures of himself.
The style is almost cartoonlike, but somewhere in his characters' faces, in sad or happy eyes, in wry smiles and in their environment, a serious impression is made.
"That's the only way I could paint," Lawrence says modestly. "You know how most kids are. They just get a crayon and paper, and they don't think of themselves as Painting, they're just having fun. That's all I ing, and this is how it turned out. It's not an intelectual process. It's the way I respond to shape, to color, to lights and darkness."
He completes his sketch, studies it, and casually passes on it.
The sketch is of a carpenter sawing a board. His other tools rest on a table nearby.
"My current theme is about builders. Actually, I've been working on that for about 10 years now, since 1968. I've always liked tools, the way they were shaped. I love the motion of people who are using tools," he says passionately.
"Now, I've been building up to this theme all along. All my painting life the theme of the builder has been cropping up.
"I'm very concerned about my work. There are things you feel you want to do, a new dimension that you want to achieve and you never really know what that dimension is or how to achieve it. I can't say what I mean," he says, "but I can feel it."
Lawrence's interest in art was nourished in a day care center arts and crafts class while his mother worked. Lawrence studied at the Harlem Art Workshop, set up through the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937.
Lawrence says that he always felt that a single image or word was inadequate to express his feelings, ideas and emotions. That is how he came to paint series - whole collections of works that were part of the same story, such as the 60-panel exhibition titled "The Migration." This was his most ambitious work. It depicted black migration from south to north during the early 1900s. He was 24-year-old when he did it.
Having felt the need to rediscover the heritage of blacks, he began his famous Harriet Tubman series in 1940.
Other works include a series on famed abolitionist Frederick Douglas, Toussaint L'Ouverture and Harlem.
In 1949, when he was at his zenith, Lawrence suffered a psychological crisis and was hospitalized briefly. While in the Hillside Hospital, he painted, and for the first time in his career there was a marked difference in his work. His world became a colorless, sterilized hospital setting, and his paintings were full of despair.
"I've always liked color and patterns. Growing up in Harlem, the things around me were so colorful. I still draw upon the experience of those days," he said.
Seven years ago, Lawrence moved to Seattle to begin teaching art at the University of Washington.
"That too was affected my sense of color and particularly space," he says. "Seattle is so gray. So tonal."
But I would be so frustrated if I couldn't paint. It's me. It's all I've ever done. It's the way I communicate, express myself.
"A lot of art and what it says depends on the viewer. I don't know what other people should get out of what I do. But I do know that what I do is my statement.
"The black artist - no, not the black artist - the artist should make art if he feels it. There should be a passion . . . but I don't have to say that. The artist knows it."