Bolling Exhibition – In 1935, Leslie Garland Bolling’s work was displayed at the Richmond Academy of Arts. This was the first one-man show highlighting the work of an African American artist in Virginia. Julia Sully’s reporting on the exhibition gives today’s reader a glimpse of how Bolling worked and how his sculptures were perceived in the 1930s.
Craig Center – In 1938, an art school for African Americans opened at the historic Craig House in Richmond, Virginia. The school was a partnership between the William Byrd Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which owned the Craig House, and the Works Progress Administration, which provided funding for the director and teachers. The school offered adult classes in a wide variety of fine arts and hosted exhibitions of artists’ work. Bolling participated in the center both as a teacher and an exhibitor. The article below highlights a Bolling exhibition and provides insight on what contemporaries were saying about his work.
WPA Life Histories:
The Virginia Writers’ Project, later called the Virginia Writers’ Program, was an organization developed under the Works Progress Administration as a part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The program aimed to provide jobs to out-of-work professionals and to record the life stories of average citizens. Staff members in Virginia collected oral histories from across the state and recorded varied experiences, including those of former slaves. You can read the two life histories below to find out what life was like for African Americans who held jobs similar to those Bolling depicted in his sculpture. You can also search the entire collection for a life history from your local community, from a specific person, or for a particular occupation.
The Negro in Virginia:
The Virginia Writer’s Project, known after July 1939 as the Virginia Writers’ Program, was a part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal–era programs to provide work to unemployed citizens. The African American division, based at Hampton Institute and directed by Roscoe E. Lewis, published a guide to the state in 1940 entitled The Negro in Virginia. The work covered topics ranging widely from a history of slavery in the state to the state of African American schools in the 1930s. Included in this guide is a brief biography of Leslie Garland Bolling. He is represented as one of the noteworthy artists of Virginia’s African American population. While reading the description, think about what it tells the reader about the artist, about the community, and about African American art in the 1930s.
Consider using a copy of The Negro in Virginia as a resource for your classroom!
"Although numerous Negroes, in and out of the State, show creative ability in writing, singing, and playing various musical instruments, only a very few have taken up successfully painting, sketching, and modeling. Outstanding wood sculptor of Virginia is Leslie G. Bolling of Richmond, who was born in Surry County in 1898, and educated at Hampton Institute and Virginia Union University. Fascinated by trains in boyhood, his earliest experience was in making pen and ink sketches of railroad locomotives. In 1926 Bolling acquired a razor-sharp jack-knife with which he began whittling figures from wood. The three dimensional medium suited him perfectly; his attic studio rapidly filled with experimental statuettes, busts, and heads. After practicing seven years, Leslie Bolling entered specimens of his work in the National Negro Exhibition of 1933, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. They were placed in a prominent position as the only exhibit from Virginia. Since his first exhibit, his reputation has steadily grown. Noted particularly for his female types, Bolling is generally credited with the same robustness of style in his carvings that Diego Rivera displays in murals. Although he turns out about six pieces a year in his characteristic style, he has been concentrating in the recent years on Negro themes. His Seven Days of the Week and The Fishman have been [page break] praised by art critics. Bolling had exhibited in the William B. Cox Galleries of New York, in the Montclair Art Museum, and at the Texas Centennial of 1937. Each year the Harmon Foundation sponsors a touring exhibit of his works in art centers of America. In 1932 and 1933 respectively, Carl Van Vechten purchased Bolling’s The Boxer and Woman’s Head."
Citation: Virginia Writer’s Project. The Negro In Virginia. New York: Hastings House, 1940. 287-288.
Bolling’s Art: Take a close look at Bolling’s work and see what he can teach us about Richmond in the 1930s. What do a woman employed as a domestic servant, a fish vendor, and the First Lady of the United States have in common? Why did Bolling choose to carve these figures? What do they have to do with the Harlem Renaissance? The Great Depression? Segregation and civil rights?
You can use these images to help fill in your KWL chart or use the sculptures as the basis of a creative writing assignment to describe a day in the life of any of the subjects.
Folk vs. Fine: Use these Venn Diagrams and examples found on the suggested websites to judge for yourself whether Bolling was a folk artist or a fine artist. To see what Bolling had to say about his own work see Spirit and Action.