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Saturday, February 19, 2005 - Page updated at 06:03 p.m

Painting was just part of her creative energy

Seattle Times art critic

Enlarge this photoALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence: "I wasn't a scholar, I was artistic in my way of seeing things."

Artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, wife of the late painter Jacob Lawrence and veteran of the Harlem Renaissance, died yesterday in her Seattle home. She was 91.

Until her husband's death in 2000, Ms. Knight was both muse and creative partner to Lawrence, one of the premier American artists of the past century. Their partnership lasted 60 years. Ms. Knight continued making art, showing some of her strongest images in a 2003 retrospective at the Tacoma Art Museum.

Unlike her husband, whose intense focus on his painting came to him early in life, like a calling, Ms. Knight preferred to spread her creative energy around. She painted for pleasure, but even before she developed an interest in painting, Ms. Knight loved to sing and dance.

"I wasn't a scholar, I was artistic in my way of seeing things," Ms. Knight said in the catalog for her Tacoma Art Museum retrospective, "Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight." The show complemented a simultaneous Seattle Art Museum traveling retrospective of Lawrence's work, "Over the Line: the Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence."

Born in Barbados on May 26, 1913, Ms. Knight immigrated with her family to the United States at age 7, said her friend Barbara Earl Thomas. She graduated from high school in 1930 and attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. She eventually moved to Harlem, where she studied with renowned artist Augusta Savage and met other groundbreaking artists including Romare Beardon and Charles Alston. Working at Alston's studio in Harlem, she met Lawrence and the two were married in 1941.

"They were an important part of history," said Thomas. "They met people that made history. They lived in the first integrated co-op in New York, that was supported by Eleanor Roosevelt. They had dinner with Eleanor Roosevelt."

Ms. Knight and her husband moved to Seattle in 1971, when he was offered a position to teach art at the University of Washington. Ms. Knight began showing her work at Francine Seders Gallery in Seattle, which also represented Lawrence, in 1976.


COURTESY OF TACOMA ART MUSEUM

"Portrait of a Girl," from the 1940s, by Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence. Even in later life, she continued to explore new directions in her work.

Ms. Knight and Lawrence weren't young when they moved to Seattle, but they made a deep and lasting mark on their adopted town. "They were here for 30 years together, and while it wasn't their whole life, it was a substantial part of their lives," said Thomas. "They were aware that Seattle gave them a kind of regard and situation that was just right for them."

Thomas said Ms. Knight had a special way of moving through the world. "She definitely represented herself and her time. I haven't met the queen, but I've met Gwen."

"I really liked the fact that she followed her own style and didn't worry about contemporary things," said gallery owner Francine Seders. "She liked to do portraits and things you would call old-fashioned. I liked that."

One of the most striking things about Ms. Knight's retrospective in Tacoma was the new direction taken in her most recent images. Many artists continue to make work late in their careers, but few keep growing. In the late 1990s, Ms. Knight suddenly dropped everything she'd done before — the intimate oil portraits of friends and mentors; the figure studies of dancers; the concise watercolors and gouache landscapes that seemed to be companion pieces to Lawrence's work. She began to draw horses from memory, in quick, musical sketches realized as monoprints and etchings.

"I hope that she is remembered not just as the wife of Jacob Lawrence," Seders said. "She should be able to stand on her own apart from Jacob."

Ms. Knight and Lawrence had no children. Memorial arrangements will be announced.

Sheila Farr: 206-464-2270 or sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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