Like approximately six million fellow African Americans, William Artis and his family were part of the Great Migration, the mass exodus of Southern black citizens to cities in the North and Midwest that took place between 1915 and 1960. Born in Washington, North Carolina, William and his family moved to New York in 1927, where the teenager completed high school and started formal art training. That instruction began under sculptor Augusta Savage, a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Artis worked primarily in terracotta and stoneware, gravitating towards portrait busts. He sculpted anonymous and decorative figurative works, as well as specific people, like the young children in his Harlem neighborhood. He presumably encountered many of his subjects while teaching ceramics at a nearby YMCA under the auspices of the WPA. This experience was the start of a long career as an educator, a passion that eventually led Artis to Midwestern college campuses.

Artis’s inclusion in the 1933 Harmon Exhibition marked a turning point in his professional trajectory. Not only was his sculpture, Head of a Girl, accepted for the Foundation’s traveling exhibition, it was awarded the John Hope Prize in Sculpture and a $100 purse, a considerable prize for a relative newcomer. That same year, Artis secured a scholarship to attend the Art Students League. Throughout the 1930s, Artis consistently showed his portrait busts in prime New York venues. Military service in 1941 caused a brief interruption in his progress, but the time away did little to stall his career. His work—which had been praised by James Porter for its “sympathetic humor and shrewd observation,” as well as its “tender lyricism”—was included in landmark exhibitions.

The late 1940s and early 1950s were a pivotal period as Artis garnered national media attention and numerous awards. The July 1946 issue of Life magazine illustrated an Artis sculpture along with other selections executed by African American artists, showcasing the objects “not because they were done by Negroes but because they represent some of the best works turned out by American artists today.” Prestigious fellowships from the Harmon Foundation (1946) and the Julius Rosenwald Fund (1947) funded a nationwide tour of sculpting demonstrations and intensive study with Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović at Syracuse University respectively. It was at Syracuse that Artis began experimenting with a more abstracted style partially inspired by African art. The portrait bust displayed here was likely made in the early 1950s, when he was working towards his BFA and MFA there.

William Artis continued to teach until his retirement in 1975, just two years before his death. Samella Lewis, the influential artist, scholar, and co-founder of Black Art: An International Quarterly, mourned his passing in that journal: “Earth . . . water . . . fire . . . air. From the dawn of his existence, man has used these elements to express his joys and sorrows and dreams. And so we understand why clay was William Artis's medium through which he expressed tenderness and hope. To the world of art, he left a rich legacy of sculpture and ceramics.”