Were it not for Lawrence and Gay Square, a lot of people might never see the work of some of the country's most notable African-American artists.

Take the late Tina Allen, known worldwide for her bronze sculptures and public monuments to prominent African-Americans, including Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth and George Washington Carver.

The Squares own the largest collection of her works. And they are willing to share.

In February, which is Black History Month, and running through March 24, the West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen is showcasing "The Square Collection," dozens of art pieces by Allen and other African-American artists the couple has amassed over the past four decades.

The museum's sampling of Allen's sculptures shows the diversity of her subjects.

There are lovers, parents and children. There are women, strong, regal women.

But it's her dancers, especially the exhibit centerpiece "Eclipse," that steal the show.

"Lawrence says Tina told him that the sculptures talked to her," museum curator Kathe Hambrick said. "The sculptures would emerge into what they were going to be."

No doubt the artist did tell that to Lawrence Square because the two were friends. And that's true of many of the artists in the show.

"I miss having the art in my house because it's a big part of our lives," said Lawrence Square of the now mostly empty walls in the couple's Zachary home. "But I want to expose as many people as I can to the work by these artists."

Art was not a part of Lawrence Square's childhood. He's a graduate of Chaneyville High School, now called Northeast High School, in Zachary. The school had no art program, and there was no art in his family's home.

After both he and his wife graduated from Grambling State University, they moved to Los Angeles to teach. For him, it was high school physical education, math and science, along with coaching basketball and teaching at Compton Junior College. Gay Square, a Keithville native, taught elementary school.

Their connection with the art world didn't begin until Lawrence Square left education to open an awards and recognition trophy business.

He attended a reception for artists showing their work. Now the work of many of those same artists is in the couple's collection.

"It gave me a chance to get an idea of their work in one area," Lawrence Square said. "Then I ended up meeting my friend, the artist Tina Allen." 

The couple gave Hambrick carte blanche in choosing the pieces for the West Baton Rouge show. 

"But I'm always nervous when the art leaves our house," he said. "It's been shown in museums in St. Louis, Atlanta and Los Angeles. This is the first time it's been shown in Baton Rouge, and this is important for the community to see it."

Hambrick whittled her choices down to some 50 pieces by such important artists as Allen, Samella Lewis, Manuelita Brown, Sam Giilliam, Charles Dickson,Ed Dwight and John Biggers.

There's also the work of John T. Scott, who was born in New Orleans' Gentilly section and grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward. His commissioned public sculptures are found throughout New Orleans, most notably Spirit House, a collaboration with Martin Payton that celebrates the contributions of African-Americans to the building and culture of New Orleans.

And Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett, who produced art for the Works Progress Administration. Catlett, who died in Mexico in 2015, is also known for her sculptures. Her public bronzes of Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson are centerpieces of New Orleans' Armstrong Park. She also is considered one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance, and her sculptures have been described as politically intensive.

Her piece in this show isn't a sculpture but a linocut print titled "Dancers," showing a group of African-American men and women dancing in a line. At the bottom is a thumbprint belonging to legendary musician Stevie Wonder.

"This print was part of The Stevie Wonder Foundation," Hambrick said. "Stevie Wonder also collected art. He can't see it, but he stands in front of it while people describe the art to him."

From St. Rose native Margaret Burroughs comes three paintings for the show. In addition to her art, she is known for her poetry and political activism. Burroughs also was the founder of the Dusable Museum of African American History in Chicago.

But it's Allen's 20 sculptures, spread throughout the gallery, that make the connections.

She died in 2008 at the age of 58 from a heart attack, but the Squares are making sure she continues to live on through her art.

"She had a lot of energy and she was a hard worker," Lawrence Square said. "She wanted to put a public bronze in every state to let kids know that they could be great, too."

While the new show means some empty walls in the Squares' home, it's what the couple wants to do.

"We want to encourage and inspire people through this art," Lawrence Square said.


'The Square Collection'

An exhibit of African American art from the collection of Lawrence and Gay Square

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Through March 24.

WHERE: West Baton Rouge Museum, 845 N. Jefferson Ave., Port Allen.

ADMISSION: $4; $2 for ages 62 and older, students, AAA members and active military. Free for West Baton Rouge Parish residents.

Follow Robin Miller on Twitter, @rmillerbr.