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Why You Should Take the Kids to See Jacob Lawrence's 'Migration Series'

This landmark show at SAM makes the history of race in America accessible for families

Published on: January 31, 2017

Panel 3, from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. The caption reads: “From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north.”
Panel 3, from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. The caption reads: “From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north”

Migration. It’s families uprooting and moving toward hope, the discrimination they encounter and the dreams they hold.

An executive order banning some Muslim refugees from entering the U.S. is currently dominating the headlines. In 1940, when Jacob Lawrence was painting his Migration Series, the big story on his mind was the journey of blacks to the cities in the North after World War I. It was a trip his own parents made, from the rural South to New Jersey, then Pennsylvania.

“Migration is the story of people everywhere since the beginning of time,” said Patricia Junker, the Ann M. Barwick curator of American art at the Seattle Art Museum.

Seattle Art Museum’s new exhibit brings together all 60 pieces from The Migration Series, Lawrence’s most celebrated work. It’s a rare opportunity to see the entire series. The even-numbered panels are owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the odd-numbered panels are owned by The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

Lawrence is best known as a painter from Harlem, but Seattle was his adopted city, where he spent the second half of his career. He moved to Seattle in 1971 for a teaching job at the University of Washington, and both he and his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, served as honorary board members at Seattle Art Museum.

“He was a real presence in this community,” Junker said. “His spirit is still with us at the Seattle Art Museum and throughout the city and at the University of Washington.”

 Jasper Pope, 7, of Shoreline, looks through a book about Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
Jasper Pope, 7, of Shoreline, looks through a book about Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel

Like walking through a storybook

Each panel of The Migration Series is quite small — 18 by 12 inches — and the entire 60-panel series fits neatly in one room. Start at panel 1, and work your way around the room clockwise. The panels are about the size of an open picture book, each labeled with a caption Lawrence wrote. Walking through the exhibit feels like walking through a storybook. Later, when I learned that Jacob Lawrence always imagined this work would be a book, it made sense.

"Their children were forced to work in the fields. They could not go to school.” That one my son understood. “Why, Mama?”

“He liked pictures and captions,” Junker said. “The picture teases out more in the caption, the caption teases out more in the picture.”

Lawrence researched and wrote the captions together with his wife. His writing style, like his painting, is straightforward, not bogged down in esoteric art-talk. My 5-year-old read each caption with me. He could sound out the words, but didn’t understand the meaning. Lynching. Discrimination. Riots. It’s true, we lead a sheltered life.

Then at panel 24, he read, “Their children were forced to work in the fields. They could not go to school.” 

That one my son understood. “Why, Mama?” he asked.

Tough subjects, but kids of all ages can engage

 3. “Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series” on view at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series on view at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel

The paintings topics cover tough subjects and big issues. There’s a coffin, riots and spiky red flames shooting out of bombed homes. The history of race in our country isn’t pretty, and Lawrence’s art doesn’t sanitize it, but he does make it accessible for families.

To illustrate lynching, he shows a person sitting huddled next to a noose. I wouldn’t be comfortable showing my young children a photograph of a lynching, but the painting wasn’t graphic. There are stylized images of handcuffs and prison bars, nothing outwardly frightening for kids.

The images are simple enough for young children to follow, and for adults to absorb at another level. This show is very educational, and appropriate for all ages.

You can preview the entire series online, along with extensive video interviews with the artist.

The show’s opening weekend, just after the inauguration, drew 10,000 people to Seattle Art Museum. People waited up to an hour and a half to see The Migration Series. Mary Webb, of Shoreline, was one of those in line. Seeing a show about discrimination and segregation seemed like an appropriate thing to do, she said.

“This is something I could take my kids to that is a very positive experience,” Webb said.
Webb walked her boys, 7 and 4, through the exhibit together and asked them what they noticed. They discussed panels showing how families in the South were very poor and didn’t have a lot of food. In a picture depicting handcuffed men, she pointed out how the rules in the South made it very easy to get in trouble.

What else can kids notice? Very small children recognize a train whistle, children writing on a blackboard and families in a train station. With older children, you might point out black and white people sitting at separate tables, or how many people in a family shared the same bedroom.

Ideas for families, from SAM Curator Patricia Junker

To engage kids in the Migration Series, first, says Junker, notice the children. Children play a huge role in the series. The migration isn’t just men moving north to find work, it’s people moving permanently, and bringing their whole families. “The children in these pictures are the real story,” Junker said. My 5-year-old’s favorite was panel 58, which illustrates opportunities for education

Talk about materials and painting. Jacob Lawrence used ready-made tempura paint on prepared cardboard. It’s the stuff kids use in art class. His painting style is equally simple. “You can watch almost every brush stroke,” Junker said. “It’s so immediate. It’s so easy to think about making pictures like that.” Bonus points if you break out the poster paints and paper when you get home.

What's the next chapter? Lawrence ends the series on a positive note. The final panel, number 60, reads, “And the migrants kept coming.” What happens next? Kids can illustrate panel 61, or draw their own series of pictures depicting their family story.

If you go ...

When: Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series is on view at the Seattle Art Museum through April 23.

Where: 1300 First Avenue, Seattle

Cost: Suggested admission is $17.95–$19.95 for adults; children 12 and under are free. Admission is free on First Thursdays.

You can also reserve a free museum pass through the Seattle Public Library. 

Parking: Rates and hours for garage parking here. Or park at the City Target across the street, where a $20 purchase gets you two hours of free parking.

Courtesy Step Afrika!
Courtesy Step Afrika!

Tips for young families: Look for the family room (opposite corner of the museum from the Jacob Lawrence exhibit) for when your kids need a break. SAM’s entire first floor is free of admission, and makes a great place to have a snack and wander. Find tips from museum educators for engaging small children in art.

Related event - Step Afrika! In a performance related to the exhibit, Step Afrika! makes its Seattle debut on Feb. 18. This Washington, D.C.–based troupe is the first professional dance company dedicated to stepping, a form of dance that began with African-American fraternities and sororities. This multimedia performance features the works of painter Jacob Lawrence at the 100th anniversary of his birth. Meany Center, Seattle. $36–$50. Ages 9 and older.

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