Jacob Lawrence’s series “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” on display at Seattle Art Museum starting March 5, addresses themes of democracy, justice and the struggle for representation, shining a spotlight on women, African Americans, Native Americans and others who’ve helped shape American history. The themes and voices the renowned painter depicted are just as relevant today — and SAM emphasizes this by including artworks from a dozen local young people in conjunction with the Lawrence series.
SAM’s exhibition, “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” reunites Lawrence’s 30-panel series for the first time since 1958, and pairs it with works by contemporary artists exploring similar themes. And for the first time at SAM, local youth will be sharing space with a major artist in a special exhibition, as a gallery will feature the artwork of 12 Puget Sound-area young people charged with imagining the “31st panel” of Lawrence’s series.
“Over the last year, young people have witnessed protests in the defense of Black lives, political unrest and a deadly pandemic. They have been active in these discussions and movements. That’s why we wanted them to connect Lawrence’s work with present issues, which aren’t that much different than his were,” said Raina Mathis, SAM’s assistant educator for teen programs. Mathis consulted with SAM’s Teen Arts Group (TAG), an intensive leadership program for high-school-age youth, for input on integrating youth voices in the exhibition.
They put out an open call for youth submissions of artworks considering the themes of the “Struggle” series. TAG chose 12 pieces to include in the special exhibition. The selected artists, ages 16-20, are a diverse group. But they are unified in the struggle for all voices to be heard.
Sophia Kagan’s artistic focus is fashion, but SAM’s call for submissions sparked the 17-year-old Sammamish teen’s interest.
“I was really interested because all his [Lawrence’s] work was about activism and giving a voice to the people who didn’t have a voice,” she said. Kagan was diagnosed with autism at age 4. She notes that discussions of representation rarely include neurodiversity. Her painting “Acceptance” represents American diversity in tension with uniform social standards.
Sixteen-year-old Izze Peña from Everett often explores her Mexican American heritage in her artwork; Bellevue Arts Museum selected one such piece for its current “20 Under 20” exhibit.
“Growing up, I didn’t really see a lot of representation out there for young Hispanic girls who are autistic and ADHD. I kind of went into this year with the motto, ‘Be the representation you always needed,’” she said.
Zoë Yanover, a 20-year-old Seattleite applying for transfer to the University of Washington, has only recently returned to art after a couple of personally challenging years. For her, the call for submissions was also a call to action.
“I’m trying to start to seize the opportunities that are presented to me,” said Yanover. She painted a future-self portrait in which she is carefree, patient and comfortable as a light-complexioned Black person.
“I thought about that [inner] struggle creating this artwork.”
Annelie Han, 16, approached the prompt literally, depicting Asian Americans protesting pandemic-related hate crimes. Because social media is integral to contemporary protest, she presented her image as a social media post.
“This issue is pretty close to me since both of my parents are first-generation immigrants from Taiwan. To me that was like a really important struggle that Asian Americans are going through today,” said the Kirkland teen.
None of the youth interviewed was familiar with Jacob Lawrence before seeing the call for submissions. But each of them researched his work in the preparation of their own, and found elements to identify with and incorporate into their submissions.
“I saw his artwork and it’s like that imperfect perfectness. I felt like I got permission from Jacob,” said Yanover, who abandoned realism in her work, “Zephyr.”
“In a lot of Jacob Lawrence’s pieces, it’s a lot of different people coming together around a similar culture,” said Peña, who included symbols for aspects of Mexican American culture in her work, “Spirits.”
Like Lawrence’s art, the small collection chosen by SAM’s Teen Arts Group illustrates that American history is not a simple linear narrative, but a much richer chorus of diverse voices.