This is Marjorie Searl speaking about the painting Summer Street Scene in Harlem by Jacob Lawrence.
So much activity is compressed into this painting that it's impossible not to feel the energy and vitality that painter Jacob Lawrence was communicating about a summer day in Harlem. While boys coast past on a wooden go-kart, the shaved ice dealer leans down to get a scoop for a waiting child, who is deciding what syrup flavor to select. In the background, grownups chat, sedately dressed in suits, dresses and hats, and mostly with their backs to the viewer. They are merely a backdrop to the boys in motion, who, while dressed in frayed and patched pants and shirts, are certainly in the mind of the artist the center of attention and the focus of the painting.
Jacob Lawrence was known for his flat, patterned, 2-dimensional style, and the distorted appearance of the figures in his paintings - consider, for example, the way in which the shaved-ice man's head hunches down between his raised shoulders at an impossible angle. The boys in profile look almost like cardboard cutouts, and their facial features are simplified to the point of being nearly cartoons. Overall, the painting goes together almost like a puzzle, with interlocking pieces. Our eyes move restlessly around the surface, which adds to the energy of experiencing the painting, and it's almost as though the artist wants us to keep exploring and being surprised by what we find. Can you find the boy who is eating his shaved ice treat? Why is the man using a crutch? Why are some people facing the wall?
Jacob Lawrence visited Rochester twice in the 1990s, once during an exhibition of his paintings and once to receive an honorary degree from the University of Rochester. On both occasions, he gave generously of himself and his time to students and community members, demonstrating the same spirited engagement that emerges from this painting.