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  • Writer's pictureAlice Bernstein

Remembering Inge Hardison, a century of artistic expression

Whenever we do something, we show what we are and also what we want…. [I]n the same way as it is necessary sometimes to stir things to do a better job of cooking, so it is necessary to have ourselves stirred—because we have to be impressed before we can express ourselves. “Aesthetic Realism and Expression,” a lecture by philosopher Eli Siegel.

Ruth Inge Hardison, sculptor, actor and photographer celebrated her 100th birthday on February 3, 2014.

Inge Hardison’s contributions to the arts have an energy that is big, thoughtful, and stirring. She was born Ruth Inge in Portmouth, Virginia in 1914.  Soon after her birth, her parents fled Jim Crow racism and segregation, settling in Brooklyn. After graduating from high school, she landed the role of “Topsy,” the enslaved child in the 1936 Broadway production of “Sweet River,” George Abbott’s adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her portrayal of the slave girl whose brutal treatment doesn’t kill her wit and kindness won her rave reviews.   She also appeared in “The Country Wife” with Ruth Gordon, and in the 1946 production of “Anna Lucasta,” co-starring with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

Inge Hardison (Topsy), George Abbott and Betty Philson (Eva.), 1936, ©by Vandamm

In the midst of all this, Inge Hardison discovered clay and was swept by the beauty and power of this material coming from the earth and, with it, her own ability and passion to express herself in this art form. It changed her life. While performing in another play, “What a Life,” she sculpted the heads of the cast members and the works were exhibited in the Mansfield Theater lobby.  In 1942 she studied at Vassar, majoring in music and creative writing. There she also gave a song recital and her lyric soprano voice and expressive power was highly praised.

"Sojourner Truth" by Inge Ruth Hardison, 1968

Bust of Frederick Douglass by Inge Hardison, Photo: Rachel J. Bernstein

I learned of Inge Hardison and met her in 2013 while doing research for “The Force of Ethics in Civil Rights,” my oral history project of videotaped interviews with unsung pioneers across the country. The research centered on the very little known history of how Jewish refugee scholars, attempting to flee the Nazi Holocaust in the 1930s-40s, were given jobs and safe haven by black colleges in the South—to the benefit of all.  Hampton Institute (now University) employed one of these refugee scholars, Viktor Lowenfeld from 1939-46.

He established the art department and urged his students to “let expression spring from your environment.”  Hardison was associated with Lowenfeld and, through this association, she taught at Hampton Institute from 1944 to 1945 or ‘46.

These events opened a new chapter in the relation of impression and expression in the life of an important American artist.

Inge Hardison at 99 with her bust of Martin Luther King, Photograph by Rachel Bernstein

Inge Hardison was interviewed along with her daughter Yolande Hardison by Alice Bernstein for "The Force of Ethics in Civil Rights" Oral History Project.

This story was published in International Review of African American Art.

©2020 Alliance of Ethics & Art. All rights reserved.

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