What makes Leslie Garland Bolling a compelling study for the classroom? His connection to the Harlem Renaissance? What his sculptures can tell us about the lives of working African Americans? That an artist well-known in his own time was nearly forgotten by history? It is all of these and more.
The life of Leslie Garland Bolling provides students with a personal connection to national themes in American history. From segregation and the Harlem Renaissance, to the Great Depression and the New Deal, Bolling’s story is one of an ordinary man with extraordinary artistic ability living in Virginia’s capital in the 1930s and accomplishing much for a self-taught artist.
Born in Virginia, Bolling made Richmond his home at a time when many African Americans were moving north in the Great Migration. Living in the South meant that segregation affected everything from where Bolling went to school to the local artistic community with which he interacted. Bolling’s restricted economic and social opportunities did not limit his natural talent, however, and after his work was discovered in the 1920s, this porter for the Everett Waddey Stationary Company found himself nationally-recognized as an artist.
Although increasingly well-known throughout his life, Bolling never turned to art as a career. His works were sold and exhibited widely and he was written about in a variety of art publications, but Bolling continued to work at his regular job and carve his sculptures in his spare time. Many factors, from the depressed economy of the 1930s to the discrimination against African American artists to personal choice, could have influenced this decision. Regardless of whether he worked at his craft full-time or not, Bolling was established in the art community. Bolling’s success illustrates that the advancements in African American art and literature that are associated with Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s were not limited by New York’s borders. The Harlem Renaissance, also called the New Negro Movement, grew out of the talents and industry of African Americans throughout the country. Bolling’s life shows the increasing opportunities for African American artists in the twentieth century, but also highlights obstacles of race that continued to prevail.
Bolling held a place in the national arts scene, but he remained tied to his local community. The arts community in Richmond gave Bolling a place to display and share his work, albeit within the constraints of segregation, late in the 1930s. The Works Progress Administration, as a part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, helped to co-sponsor an adult art school for the African American community at the historic Craig House. The school taught classes and hosted exhibitions to expose the local population to fine arts, rather than traditional crafts. Bolling taught at the school and showed his work there, taking an active role in supporting the endeavor. The school was short-lived and closed in 1941, but Bolling’s legacy continues.
Studying Bolling’s life can uncover a wealth of information about the period, but looking at his sculptures provides another way to learn about African American life. The working figures show the daily activities of farmers, vendors, domestic servants, athletes, cooks, and more. Students can learn about pressing clothes with a flat iron or buying fish on the street. They can see large blocks of ice being delivered and food cooking on a wood-burning stove. There are also inferences that can be made from what is known about Bolling’s life that help us to understand more about his subjects, such as who they may have worked for and what their roles were in the Richmond community.
Bolling had stopped carving by the time of his death in 1955 and, even with his work dispersed throughout the United States and Europe, he became largely overlooked by history. Through this exhibition a significant number of his more than eighty works have been found again and recorded, ensuring that this artist and his sculpture will be remembered in the future.
By exploring this Web exhibition you can learn more about Bolling and his work; then use the primary sources and activities collected here to make this a part of history that your students will not forget!