Born Augusta Christine Fells in Green Cover Springs, Florida, Savage began sculpting animals and other small figures as a child. Her father, a Methodist minister, did not approve of his daughter’s sculpture. Savage continued sculpting despite her father’s attempts to stop her. After a failed attempt to establish herself as a sculptor in Florida, Savage moved to New York City in the 1920s. She studied art at Cooper Union. While there, she applied to study in France, but was rejected because of her race. She sent letters to the local media about the program selection committee’s discriminatory practices, but the committee still refused to alter its decision. Determined to pursue her career, Savage made a name for herself sculpting portraits of such famous African Americans as W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. She became one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance. She helped many young African American artists, including Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis. She also lobbied the Works Projects Administration (WPA) on behalf of African American artists to help them find work and was a founder of the Harlem Artists’ Guild.
Savage won a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1929, based in part on her sculpture of her nephew, Ellis Ford, which she called Gamin, meaning street urchin to represent the young African American men who lived in Harlem with the intention of giving them racial pride and dignity. The Rosenwald Fellowship gave Savage the opportunity to study art in Paris, where she found support for her work. Gamin became Savage’s best known and most successful sculpture. It was originally sculpted as a life-size bronze, which is now in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The sculpture became so popular that she made numerous smaller plaster versions on demand. Many of these plaster sculptures have not survived or are in poor condition due to the fragility of the medium, so they are difficult to acquire for a museum collection. The Gamin sculpture in the IMA’s collection is well preserved and attests to Savage’s skill as a sculptor.