Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968) is celebrated for being the first American black artist to reflect African themes and folk tales in her work and for being ahead of her time in her understanding of the black experience. Fuller's career spanned over seventy years. Her sculptural works in bronze, clay, and plaster represented her comments on wartime America, racism and violence, and the African American perspective. As a young woman studying in Paris, she was encouraged by French artist Auguste Rodin and W.E.B. DuBois.
Encouraged as a Young Artist
William H. Warrick, Jr., was a master barber, and his wife, Emma (Jones) Warrick, was a hairdresser and wigmaker. Their fourth child, Meta Vaux Warrick, was born June 9, 1877, in a middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was ten years younger than her brother William and sister Blanche. Another sister, Virginia, died before Fuller was born.
As early as elementary school, Fuller's parents encouraged her interest in art and her artistic talents began to shine. In high school, she was selected to attend J. Liberty Tadd's art school for special classes once a week. In fact, a small woodcarving of Fuller's was part of the school's display at the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago.
After graduating high school, Fuller was one of the first blacks to earn a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Museum and School for Industrial Art, which she attended for three years, until 1897. Part of her scholarship was that she produce a work for the school, which resulted in a bas-relief, which featured thirty-seven medieval figures, called Procession of the Arts and Crafts. Fuller won a prize for the sculpture, one of the year's best works.
Studies in Paris Challenged by Money, Race
After college, in 1899, Fuller sailed to Europe. She first stopped in England and spent a month with a friend of her mother, then continued on to Paris. A friend of Fuller's uncle, painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, had agreed to look after her there. When her train arrived in Paris, Tanner was not there to meet her. Fuller found her way to a women's youth hostel for students, called the American Girls Club, but was unwelcome. Fuller was shocked to find the club's rules excluded her because of her race.
Though the American Girls Club did not welcome Fuller, the club's director was helpful to her. The director helped her find a room to stay in and introduced her to American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Fuller's studies in Paris had been limited by financial problems, and Saint-Gaudens helped her meet competent teachers. He suggested she take time to study drawing for a while rather than rush into sculpting. For the first year of her Paris stay, Fuller studied drawing, visited museums, and attended lectures at Académie des Beaux-Arts. With Saint-Gaudens's guidance, she had advanced to sculpting from live models by the summer of 1900.
Fuller was in the company of many notable black Americans who had come to Paris to participate in the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900. Fuller spent time with Thomas J. Calloway, the exposition commissioner; Andrew F. Hilyer, an agent of the United States Department of the Interior, and his wife, Mamie, an accomplished pianist; Alonzo Herndon; Adrian McNeal Herndon, an actress who taught at Atlanta University; and Professor W. E. B. DuBois of Atlanta University. Fuller resisted DuBois when he suggested she focus on African American subjects. She felt it would limit her work. After the exposition, Fuller registered at the Académie Colarossi to study under French sculptors.
Mentored by Master Auguste Rodin
In the summer of 1901, Fuller had a fortunate meeting. One of her fellow students at Colarossi arranged to introduce her to renowned French sculptor Auguste Rodin at the sculptor's home in Meudon. Fuller went with hopes of being accepted as one of Rodin's students and so brought with her an example of her work. He was impressed with the piece, called The Man Eating His Heart, and complemented her sense of form. Though he already had too many students, he did promise to visit her in Paris often to critique her work.
Fuller and Rodin shared a belief that the purpose of art was to explore human emotion. Under her French mentor, Fuller became more bold in her execution of these ideas, often embracing an ugly portrayal rather than limiting herself to aesthetically pleasing ones. During this time Fuller's work became stronger and more daring in subject as well as form. She began more consciously using her work to make a philosophical point. She illustrated the importance of duty in Man Carrying a Dead Comrade. She explored the struggle of the wise man who cannot alleviate human suffering in The Wretched.
Although Fuller shied away from focusing solely on African American themes, her work—and her world perspective— certainly was influenced by her color. Many were shocked and laughed at the grotesque face of Fuller's contribution to the 1902 Victor Hugo Centennial, a portrayal of Hugo's Laughing Man. In an era when African Americans were depicted humorously as slow and lazy, bug-eyed "Sambos," Fuller was commenting on the accepted images of the time with Laughing Man. She objected to such stereotypes and by altering her subject's face—his mouth opened grotesquely to his ears, his ears folded over his eyes—was indirectly protesting them with the piece.
Her studies in Paris began to pay off during her last year there. Rodin was drawing attention to Fuller's work and she held private showings. The press called her the "delicate sculptor of horrors," and she was the only American artist invited to show with several French artists in Paris. During that year, her work caught the attention of S. Bing, a patron of such artists as Mary Cassatt, Aubrey Beardsley, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He held a one-woman show for her at his famous modern art and design gallery, L'Art Nouveau.
Started to Follow African American Inspiration
Back in her native Philadelphia in 1902, Fuller at once set up a studio and continued to work. She found chilly receptions from local art dealers who claimed not to buy domestic work, but were not interested in her Paris sculptures either. Fuller felt that her race was the reason and found a more appreciative group in Philadelphia's black social and intellectual circles. The more she became immersed in black life in Philadelphia, the more her work began to reflect African American themes as well as European influences. She held exhibitions at her studio and was invited by local art schools and community organizations to contribute to their art shows. She showed pieces like Two-Step and The Comedian, a portrayal of dancer and singer George Walker. Both sculptures were examples of this transitional time in Fuller's work.
Fuller began to draw her inspiration more heavily from the songs of black America and from African folk tales. Before the emergence of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Fuller presented America with work that showed the impact of African and African American themes. Her sculptures illustrated truth, joy, and other universal facets of the human condition. Her work naturally began to take the tone of W.E.B. DuBois's suggestion to her in Paris—that she specialize in African American themes.
In 1907, on the recommendation of Thomas Calloway, whom she had met at the Paris Universal Exposition, Fuller was commissioned to sculpt a number of scenes for the Negro pavilion at the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition. She won a gold medal for 150 figures, which represented the progress of black Americans since their 1619 arrival in Jamestown, Virginia. She was the first black woman artist to receive a federal commission.
Fire Destroyed, but Family Strengthened
Although it was not the popular view of the time, Fuller decided to combine career and marriage and wed Dr. Solomon C. Fuller in 1909. Dr. Fuller, born in Liberia, was a neurologist at Massachusetts State Hospital and a director of the pathology lab at Westborough State Hospital. The couple moved into the house they had built in Framingham, Massachusetts. The Fullers would become significant residents of the town. In 1994, Fuller Middle School in Framing-ham was named in their honor.
Before she was married, Fuller stored all her tools and sculptures in a Philadelphia warehouse. In 1910, before she could have the load shipped to her home in Framingham, a fire in the warehouse destroyed sixteen years' worth of her work from Paris and Philadelphia. The tragedy killed her desire to sculpt, and Fuller found solace as a wife and mother—over the next six years, she gave birth to three children, sons Solomon, Jr., William Thomas, and Perry.
However, Fuller did not stop sculpting for too long. In 1913, W.E.B. DuBois requested that she recreate one of her pieces lost in the fire, Man Eating His Heart. for the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in New York. The prospect seemed too painful to Fuller, who instead produced an eight-foot-tall sculpture of three figures, called Spirit of Emancipation. Unlike her other work at the time, the sculpture was not comprised of obvious slavery and African American symbolism, such as the discarded chains and thankful slaves bowing to the image of Abraham Lincoln that appeared in her other sculptures. Spirit of Emancipation was the start of the most prolific period of Fuller's life, which lasted fifty years.
Social Observations Produced Strong, Subtle Work
Where before Fuller's sculptural statements on the African American experience had utilized bold and obvious imagery, her style became more subdued. She was no less a social observer and advocate, but she made her statements more subtlety. Between 1914 and 1921, Fuller's work reflected American anxieties over the world at war. She explored the search for peace and the atrocities of war. Fuller created two anti-lynching pieces in response to the increasing violence against blacks in America, one based on the notorious Mary Turner case. She also produced a relief of a boy rising from his knees in the morning sun, hoping to inspire black youth at Atlanta, Georgia's black Young Men's Christian Association during these racially tense times.
During this period, Fuller created Ethiopia Awakening, a sculpture which symbolized the emergence of a new way of black thinking that anticipated the voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Using an African motif, she sought to awaken blacks to the awareness of anti-colonialism and nationhood. The sculpture was of a woman whose lower half was wrapped like a mummy, with the head of a beautiful African woman wearing an ancient Egyptian queen's headdress. In Ethiopia Awakening, Fuller looked to share a message of hope in Africa—a world plagued by hunger and war, compared to the prosperity of the Western world.
In 1929, Fuller responded to her increasingly crowded attic studio and her husband's concerns for her health. Dr. Fuller was worried that so much dust produced in so small a space would damage his wife's health. So she designed and had built a shoreline studio on Larned's Pond, not far from the Fuller home. The new space increased her productivity and allowed her to begin taking on students.
Grew No Less Inspired With Age
Fuller's popularity grew in the 1930s. She showed her work at local libraries and churches and with the Boston Art Club. She exhibited her work with and later became a juror for The Harmon Foundation in New York City, which was founded to support the work of young black artists. Through these types of relationships, Fuller shared work still rooted in African American culture throughout the thirties and forties.
Fuller closed up her studio in 1950 to care for her husband, who died three years later. Sick with tuberculosis, she entered a sanitarium, where she stayed until 1956. When she was again well, she started taking commissions, including one for the Palmer Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, to sculpt its founder. She also sculpted the head and hands of ten notable black women for a set of dolls for the National Council of Negro Women in Washington, D.C.
Through her eighties, Fuller continued to produce significant and inspired commissions. Storytime, for the Framingham Center Library, depicts a mother reading to her children. Framingham Union Hospital, where Dr. Fuller practiced, commissioned her to sculpt a representation of working doctors and nurses. She also supported the civil rights movement by donating proceeds from the sales of her work and by letting symbols of that era inspire her. She dedicated The Good Shepherd to the clergymen who walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. across the Edmund Pettus bridge on March 9, 1965. When four young girls died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Fuller reacted with a piece called The Crucifixion.
Although Fuller initially resisted W.E.B. DuBois's idea that she specialize in African American themes in her work, she ultimately did just that. Her perspective of the black American experience led to her strongest, most recognized, and inspired works. Fuller died March 18, 1968, at age 90.
Dictionary of American Women, edited by Chris Petteys, 1985.
Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, 1997.
Hall of Black Achievement, http://www.bridgew.edu/HOBA/fuller.htm (April 21, 2003).