If you grow up in Atlantic City, role models can be hard to find.

If you grow up in Atlantic City with a penchant for fine art, role models can be especially hard to find.

Which makes it a pity that more people in Atlantic City are not familiar with native son Jacob Lawrence.

And all of which makes it fortuitous that former state Sen. William Gormley and Atlantic City historian Nelson Johnson had lunch not long ago.

At lunch, as Gormley recounts it, Johnson said it was a shame that more Atlantic City residents were not aware of Jacob Lawrence. Gormley, truth be told, didn't know who he was either.

But Gormley quickly found out that Lawrence - who was born in Atlantic City in 1917 - was a renowned painter whose works hang in major museums around the country and in the White House Green Room.

Gormley got on the phone with Atlantic City School Superintendent Donna Haye, and out of that conversation came Jacob Lawrence Day in the city's schools and a contest asking students to create works in Lawrence's style. Forty-one students participated in the contest, and a display of their works will open at the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center City Campus on May 21.

Gormley and his wife, Ginny, also arranged for Atlantic City students to take a bus trip to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to see Lawrence's works firsthand.

Lawrence's mother enrolled him in art classes when the family moved to Harlem, and much of his early work involved copying his mother's carpets. Eventually, he came to paint bold, colorful scenes of African-American life in a style he dubbed "dynamic cubism." In 1970, Lawrence became an art professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

He married fellow painter Gwendolyn Knight in 1941, and they were together until Lawrence's death in 2000 at the age of 82. Lawrence's works are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and other museums. His 1947 piece called "The Builders" hangs in the White House. His last public work - a mosaic mural titled "New York in Transit" - is installed in the Times Square subway station.

In other words, quite a career. And until now, he has been virtually unknown in his birthplace.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic City Alliance is busy erecting public art projects around the city. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is trumpeting the value of an arts community and artists' studios in redeveloping the city. It sure would be nice if one or both of these organizations found a way to exhibit some of Lawrence's work in Atlantic City, or at least created some kind of exhibit documenting his career.

The children of Atlantic City need to know that this incredible artist and role model can inspire their dreams and aspirations.


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