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Inspired by Jacob Lawrence

PEM exhibit includes contemporary, local reflections

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Inspired by Jacob Lawrence
“Jacob’s Ladder” (2020), Derrick Adams. PHOTO: AMELIA KANTROVITZ

The perspectives of young people are integral to the Peabody Essex Museum exhibition “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle.” In his “Struggle” series, Lawrence portrays democracy-building as an endeavor that takes commitment, courage and hard work from all to achieve freedom and justice for all. Recent works by Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976), Bethany Collins (b. 1983), and Derrick Adams (b. 1970) are on display alongside “Struggle,” adding contemporary voices to Lawrence’s mid-1950s chronicle of a struggle without a finish line.

In addition, high school students reflect on Lawrence’s work in an exhibition publication for and by young adults, titled “American Struggle: Teens Respond to Jacob Lawrence.” Its contributors include four Boston Community Leadership Academy 10th-graders: Lynsey Borges, Makenda Marc, Yollett Ramoz Sanchez, and Brianna Santiago.

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Suggesting the ease with which we can ignore our society’s fault lines, Thomas presents photographs that come alive only with the flash of cellphone cameras, revealing details not otherwise visible of a protester resisting arrest in Alabama and a “whites-only” demonstration at a Florida beach. For “Rich Black Specimen #460” (2017), Thomas drew from an archive of stock images used to post notices of runaway slaves, expanding one of these tiny silhouetted figures into a life-size sculpture of a powerful man. Viewed from the side, the flat metallic figure becomes an undulating band of autumnal hues that blend with the palette of Lawrence’s images.

An installation by Collins, “America: A Hymnal” (2017), invites visitors into a chapel-like room furnished with Shaker-style benches and a podium that holds an open book. Its pages display sheet music for 100 versions of the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” adapted by Early American composers to support a variety of competing crusades. Multiple acappella versions of the song play at the same time, suggesting a cacophony of viewpoints and voices. Hinting at the transience of tightly held beliefs, Collins blurs the musical notes on the laser-cut pages, which will self-destruct as they are turned over the course of the exhibition.

Adams provides two rich tributes to the power of art and artists to connect and elevate lives across time.

His split-screen video “Saints March” (2017) combines the sound and sight of tapping feet with a panoramic view of the sky and a slow, soulful acappella rendering of “When the Saints Go Marching In” by hip-hop artist COR.ECE. Adams met the dancers, Torrance and Derrick Jenkins, while they were performing on Decatur Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter. With research worthy of Lawrence, who spent years mining archives for his history series, Adams nods to Decatur Street in Brooklyn, where Lawrence lived while creating “Struggle,” and alludes to Panel 19 of the series, which shows captured crewmen of the USS Chesapeake, commanded by Stephen Decatur during the War of 1812.

With “Jacob’s Ladder” (2020), a labor of love, Adams provides “Struggle” with a fine epilogue, a shrine to Lawrence, his role model and mentor. Evoking the bible story of Jacob, who in a dream saw a ladder carrying angels between heaven and earth, Adams crowns his installation with his own marvelous, multicolored painting of Lawrence, connected via a whimsical ladder to the artist’s actual armchair, which faces a panel of lively photographs from Lawrence’s personal archives. The scene conjures a visit with Lawrence as well as his abiding power to inspire new audiences and artists.

“American Struggle: Teens Respond to Jacob Lawrence,” is available for purchase at

View the Derrick Adams video “Saints March” (2017) at

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