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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

Laura Wheeler Waring and Me

Part 1. I was looking for my next project and she chose me....
Valerie Harris views Laura Wheeler Waring self-portrait

I had just finished “A Highway Runs Through It…” a film that documents the history of the black community in Darby Township, PA a suburban area outside Philadelphia, where some residents can trace their heritage to the late 1790s. Researching, scripting and producing this documentary resonated with me on a personal level. My mother, one of 18 children, was born in Darby Township, and I got the idea for the project while leading a memoir writing workshop for elders at a community center there. I worked with Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia to produce the film and it was a successful project, winning an award at the San Francisco Black Film Festival and more importantly, highly regarded by the Darby Township community. But now... what would I do next?

The project had to be accessible to me....

One reason I was able to devote two years to “A Highway Runs Through It….” is because Darby Township was accessible to me. I was, as always, doing other income-generating work. The location is only a short drive from my home in Philadelphia, and there were older members of my own family I could go to who remembered growing up there before redevelopment forced my grandparents to relocate. Lastly, there was a local historian—who also happened to be a distant relative—who had been collecting decades-old photographs of the people and places of Darby Township and was well known to the town’s current senior residents. He would prove an invaluable source and collaborator on the project.

But now, on the verge of starting a new full-time job in communications at the University of Pennsylvania, I knew that my “free” time would be limited. My next creative project would have to be just as accessible as the Darby Township documentary had been.

So how did I settle on Laura Wheeler Waring as my subject?

I knew I wanted to explore the life of a woman, an African American, then, finally, an African American woman artist. Maybe someone who was active in New York during the #HarlemRenaissance of the 1920s? There would be a lot of information online that could lead me into deeper dives, and I could certainly spend a couple of weekends in New York to do some hands-research. Or what about someone who worked as a #WPA (Works Progress Administration) artist during the late 1930s, early 1940s? That was an interesting period for black artists….

One Saturday afternoon I sat at my computer, internet surfing, considering my options. There weren’t many for the period I was interested in. Laura Wheeler Waring came up, as did the sculptor, Nancy Prophet, and if I wanted to extend my time frame, there was the painter, Lois Mailou Jones.

But the woman who hit a lot of buttons for me was the influential sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962). Her gritty story is marked by racism, perseverance, ongoing poverty, and spiritual battles. But there was also artistic success—most notably, perhaps, her commission from the 1939 World’s Fair for her monumental sculpture, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Savage was not only a mighty creative talent, but an activist and community arts educator. She offered free classes in her Harlem studio, co-founded the Harlem Artists’ Guild in 1935, and was director of the WPA-funded Harlem Community Center in 1937. I identified deeply with her commitment to championing the arts in the black community. I could relate to her lack of privilege and familial support, the constant struggle between making a living and making art. I was pretty much sold on Savage. But then a strange thing happened, right there in my studio.

"Write about me," she said.....

A solicitation envelope from Cheyney University came loose from the frame of a print that hung on the wall above my computer. I had stuck it there as a reminder to send a donation to my alma mater. The envelope drifted down and landed behind the computer screen. When I reached for it, I heard, from the depths of my imagination, the words, “Write about me.”

“About whom? Which one?” I pondered. The answer came immediately: “Waring. She’s right here.”

Laura Wheeler Waring. The one whose paintings I saw regularly while studying in the library at Cheyney where she taught for forty years. The one whose legacy is felt here in Philadelphia, with a junior high school named in her honor, and a historic marker in front of the house in West Philly where she lived for over 20 years, not far from where I live now. I could find her, get close to her. There was no one on the list more accessible to me than her.

But I was not immediately drawn to Waring....

(see Part 2)

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