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Jacob Lawrence was an African American painter; he was married to fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight. Lawrence referred to his style as "dynamic cubism". He is among the best-known twentieth century African American painters. Born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lawrence was thirteen when he moved with his mother, sister and brother to New York City. His mother enrolled him in classes at an arts and crafts settlement house in Harlem, in an effort to keep him busy. The young Lawrence often drew patterns with crayons. Although much of his work copied his mother's carpets, an art teacher there noted great potential in Lawrence. After dropping out of high school at sixteen, Lawrence worked in a laundry and a printing plant. More importantly, he attended classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, taught by his mentor, the African American artist Charles Alston. Alston urged him to also attend the Harlem Community Art Center, led by the sculptor Augusta Savage. Savage was able to secure a paid position for Lawrence with the Works Progress Administration. In addition to getting paid, he was able to study and work with such notable Harlem Renaissance artists as Alston and Henry Bannarn in the Alston-Bannarn workshop. In November 1943 (during the Second World War), he enlisted in the United States Coast Guard. He was able to paint and sketch while in the Coast Guard, and travelled to Egypt, Italy, and India.
In 1970 Lawrence settled in Seattle, Washington and became an art professor at the University of Washington.
Throughout his career Lawrence concentrated on depicting the history and struggles of African Americans. Lawrence's work often portrayed important periods in African-American history.
Lawrence was only twenty-three when he completed the sixty-panel set of narrative paintings entitled Migration of the Negro. The series, a moving portrayal of the migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the rural South to the North after World War I, was shown in New York, and brought him national recognition. In the 1940s Lawrence was given his first major solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and became the most celebrated African American painter in the country.
He taught at several schools, and continued to paint until a few weeks before his death in June 2000 at the age of eighty-two. His last public work, the mosaic mural New York in Transit, was installed in October 2001 in the Times Square subway station in New York City.
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