Robert Savon Pious' Design Journey

I asked writer and artist David Saunders to address the social issues that Robert Savion Pious faced through his life–including the topics of racism and access to education. David Saunders, who was born and raised in Harlem, where his father, artist Norman Saunders (1907-1989) lived and worked, speaks from a wealth of knowledge on R. S. Pious, the emergence of a post-war black culture, and the publishing industry that employed pulp artists. Saunders describes how Pious managed to overcome historic obstacles, while advancing an artistic vision of African American dignity. —Laetitia Wolff


Laetitia Wolff: How did Pious discover design as a career?

David Saunders: Despite a childhood of turmoil and hardships, R. S. Pious felt the urge to be an artist because he had a natural gift for drawing. After graduating high school in Chicago, he took a job at the Cuneo Press, which was a gigantic company that printed half the newspapers and magazines in the Midwest. It was a massive enterprise. He gravitated toward the art department, where dozens of staff artists worked. Some senior employees took him under their wing and recommended he study at the Art Institute of Chicago. He attended that school in the daytime, while working all night at the press. After two years, he began to sell his own freelance art. He continued working for newspapers as a commercial artist and designer for the rest of his life.

LW: Who were some of his favorite designers?

DS: His first influences would have been newspaper cartoonists, and his second, the academic art teachers in Chicago. In 1931, he left Chicago and moved to New York City, where he studied at the National Academy of Design and was influenced by another group of art teachers. It was the time and place of the Harlem Renaissance, whose most outstanding artists were Augusta Savage, Ernest Chrichlow, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Joseph Delaney, Romare Beardon, and Jacob Lawrence. R. S. Pious came of age during the Great Depression, so the look of the WPA [Work Progress Administration], which was half realist and half modernist, also directly influenced his style.

LW: What kind of obstacles did Pious encounter as an emerging artist?

DS: The obstacle he faced was racism, in addition to the general lack of opportunities for all artists in America. His parents were children of slaves, raised in Meridian, Mississippi. They struggled with a corrupt system to put food on the table for their children. His father died at age 41 in a work-related accident while loading trains. His mother had to support six kids. She remarried and moved to St. Louis, where his stepfather died. The mother then moved the family to Chicago. If she had not struggled to survive, her son would have never escaped the racist laws of Mississippi, where a black kid could not have gone to art school.

In 1931, R. S. Pious received the Harmon Award for his talent in portraiture, followed by a scholarship to study at the National Academy of Design in New York. Thanks to these formal recognitions of his talent, he found work drawing portraits of notable figures for the most important African American newspapers and magazines, including Opportunity and The Crisis.

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A painting of boxer Joe Louis, 1938, who socks Max Schmeling while the audience cheers.

LW: How did Pious develop his sense of intellectual and artistic independence?

DS: When he moved to New York he became friendly with the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Thanks to his work for publishers, he was assigned to draw portraits of notable Americans, like Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Josephine Baker.

But most importantly, he met Charles Seifert, who became his mentor. Seifert was a scholar who inspired Pious to explore subjects from African history. Black culture in America was separate from white culture. There were separate magazines, separate newspapers, separate housing, separate bathrooms. In some cities, like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, there was integration, but even in those cities there were two separate cultures. Public schools offered no formal education about African history. So when black children asked the universal question, “Who am I, and where do I come from?” there were no helpful answers. Charles Seifert was a pioneer in promoting awareness of African ancestry. That notion became critical to the artistic vision of R.S. Pious.

“When black children asked the universal question, ‘Who am I, and where do I come from?’ there were no helpful answers. That notion became critical to the artistic vision of R.S. Pious.”

LW: Can you speak more to Seifert’s direct influence on Pious?

DS: Pious finally found an outlet for his talent when he met Seifert, who convinced him to celebrate the nobility of his ancestry. He finally saw himself as a descendant of a proud culture with a thousand years of history. That was the first time he understood his roots and realized his calling. After that Pious continued to pursue his art career by following whatever opportunities he found in the imperfect world of those pre-civil movement times.

LW: What does The American Negro Exposition represent in American culture?

DS: In 1936, R. S. Pious designed the poster for The Texas Centennial Exposition, which was held in Dallas and included a Hall of Negro Life, which was one of the earliest mainstream celebrations of African-American history. In 1940, he designed the poster for a similar event in Chicago, The American Negro Exposition, which marked the 75th jubilee of the abolition of slavery. These expositions celebrated the accomplishments of black people in industry, science, arts, and sports. The events were both staged in major municipal coliseums. Thousands of black families traveled to see the exhibitions. It was the high point in the art career of R. S. Pious, because his second poster won a competition, and the award was presented to him by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia at City Hall in New York.

SavonPious2
The American Negro Exposition in Chicago poster, 1940, captured the proud black man and woman and celebrates the accomplishments of African Americans in science, agriculture, law, and the arts. The design style reflects the modernist look of the WPA art murals in the Great Depression, which Pious also painted.

LW: How did pop culture magazines become key channels of artistic expression for Pious?

DS: As with most American artists of the 1930s, R. S. Pious had to support himself by working as a freelance commercial artist in the publishing industry. There was an “open-door-policy” in the field of pulp fiction magazines, so any artist could walk in with their portfolio and sell a drawing or painting to a pulp magazine editor. That system was designed to keep prices low, because it increased competition. The pulps provided thrilling short stories for ten cents at every corner newsstand. Each different pulp specialized in sports, or romance, or mystery, or science-fiction, or Westerns. Each magazine had about ten short stories, and each story needed one or two line drawings, for which the artist was paid six dollars. Editors gave R. S. Pious assignments to illustrate specific scenes. Like Pious, most of the artists that drew for the pulps also worked in newspapers. The pulps did not rely on advertising for income, so the artists were free to draw however they pleased. This freedom meant no editorial oversight, which plagued the higher-paid artists that worked for The Saturday Evening Post, where they had to avoid anything that might offend their advertisers. In addition to pulps, R. S. Pious also drew features that were published in Blue Bolt Comics, Spy Hunters, Cowboy Western, Catholic Comics, X-Venture, and Zip Comics.

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Blue Bolt, Golden Age Comic Books, December 1945. Today, R. S. Pious is mostly remembered as a genuine Golden Age comic book artist.

LW: Pious’ work often captures the African American psyche of liberation and empowerment.

DS: At that time, it was socially forbidden in the United States for a black man to even look a white man straight in the eyes. To assume the stature of an equal was an act of social aggression. His painting of the boxer simply says, “I am here, you are there.” That alone was provocative. In those days, many people were lynched for such defiant behavior. A black man didn't have to sock a white guy to cause a commotion, all he had to do was behave with dignity towards him in public, which was an offense to the concept of white supremacy. Most images of black people in American popular culture were humble, deferential, and smiling, while their portraits by R. S. Pious were relaxed, dignified, and confident.


Timeline

  • March 7, 1908 Born in Meridian, Mississippi
  • 1926 Graduated high school and began to attend the Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1931 Won an award from the Harmon Foundation in New York City for his portrait of composer Roland Hayes
  • 1934 Met his mentor Charles Seifert, a scholar of African history
  • 1937 Worked for the WPA Federal Art Project during the Great Depression, on murals in libraries, health centers, and schools in New York city, such as the DeWitt Clinton High School. He was also funded by the WPA to teach art at the Harlem branch of the YMCA.
  • 1938 Designed the poster for the world's fair, The Texas Centennial Exposition, which included a Hall of Negro Life, one of the earliest mainstream celebrations of African-American history. /li>
  • 1940 Won first prize for his poster for The American Negro Exposition
  • 1940s Became an artist celebrity, whose activities were reported in the African-American media along with popular athletes, entertainers, business tycoons and socialites.
  • 1951 Authored a portrait of Harriet Tubman displayed at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
  • 1958 Appeared in an advertised product endorsement for Lucky Strike cigarettes
  • February 1, 1983 Died in the Bronx at 74

Robert Savon Pious portraitRobert Savon Pious was born on March 7, 1908 in Meridian, Mississippi. His parents were both the children of African-American slaves. His father worked in the shipping yard loading railroad trains and died in 1914 at the age of forty-two, when Pious was age six. His mother married her second husband, Henry Coleman, and the family moved to Chicago, where he attended public school and his drawing talent was nurtured by helpful art teachers.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, Pious worked full-time all-night in the press room of the Cuneo Press. While working there he became interested in a career as a newspaper artist, drawing cartoons and advertising and began to supply black and white illustrations for Continental Features, a syndicate for African-American newspapers. He continued to draw editorial cartoons, ads, and illustrations for this company for rest of his life.

In 1929, one of his portraits won an award from the Harmon Foundation in New York City. This honor helped to promote his reputation as a promising young artist. He was awarded a full scholarship to study at the National Academy of Design in New York City, and so moved to New York during the Harlem Renaissance. He knew the sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962), whose studio was a popular fixture in the Harlem Artists Guild, and included the likes of Ernest Chrichlow (1914-2005), Charles Alston (1907-1977), Norman Lewis (1901-1979), Joseph Delaney (1904-1991), Romare Beardon (1911-1988), and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). At that same time, he also met Charles C. Seifert (1871-1949), a scholar of African history, who became the artist's mentor and inspired him to explore historic subjects of African ancestry.

During the Great Depression, he worked as a muralist for the WPA Federal Art Project, an enlightened government program that provided relief income for artists. He worked on murals in libraries, health centers, and schools in NYC, such as the DeWitt Clinton High School. He was also funded by the WPA to teach art at the Harlem branch of the YMCA.

He drew pen and ink story illustrations for pulp magazines, such as Sky Raiders, Exciting Sports, Exciting Football, Popular Football, Sports Fiction, Super Sports, and Sports Winners. He illustrated books and drew portraits of noteworthy African-Americans for the covers of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life and The National Scene, a weekly magazine distributed nationwide as a Sunday supplement in African-American newspapers. His portrait of Harriet Tubman is displayed at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

R. S. Pious became an artist celebrity, whose activities were reported in the African-American media along with popular athletes, entertainers, business tycoons and socialites, and was popular enough to appear in an advertised product endorsement for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Robert S. Pious died in the Bronx at the age of seventy-four on February 1, 1983.


David Saunders portraitDavid Saunders is an artist, writer, and art historian. He has written biographical essays for ILLUSTRATION magazine on artists of the 1930s. His website provides biographical information on many classic American illustrators, including his father, Norman Saunders (1907-1989).

Laetitia Wolff headshotLaetitia Wolff is AIGA’s director of strategic initiatives, where she oversees community-centered design and social justice programs, following three years of collaboration with AIGA New York where she helped build the local organization’s civic initiatives and creative placemaking projects. Wolff is a design curator, creative strategist, and author, self-described as a cultural engineer. An instructor at SVA Impact! Design for Social Change summer program, she was the editor-in-chief of Surface and Graphis magazines, and the author of Massin, the award-winning monograph on French graphic master, and of the seminal Real Photo Postcards.

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The 2018 Design Journeys series is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.