Ralph Arnold: Experiments in American Culture

With contributions from Erin Thomas.

“I’m an American artist. That’s how I want to be known.”                                                    Ralph Arnold (1928-2006)

“American” is also an appropriate descriptor for the subject of Ralph Arnold’s extensive oeuvre. Arnold explored American popular cultural forms in his collages and assemblage works throughout his career. The collection of the South Side Community Art Center benefits from a range of works by Arnold. In Tribute to a Lineage, Arnold juxtaposes duotone images of African figurative sculpture and American cowboys perched on horses. The careful coordination of color between the images and the geometric patterns behind them—at once modernist grid and West African textile—harmonize the composition. Also, seemingly part of the patterned motif are the small geometric forms of black bodies that align to create a schematic of a slave ship, the point of contact between Africa and America. The collage presents the dual lineage of black Americans whose laboring bodies built America yet tend to be absent from the narratives of its founding unlike the rugged and heroic cowboys. Arnold appropriates these flattened and familiar, endlessly recycled images to investigate the complex construction of identity in America in a way that is more ambivalent than his emphatic claim to his American identity.

Ralph Arnold, Tribute to a Lineage, date unknown

Ralph Arnold, Tribute to a Lineage, date unknown.

Born in Chicago, Arnold studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before serving in the United States military during the Korean War.[1] Upon returning to Chicago, Arnold met Bill Frederick who would become his partner. Frederick was an accomplished silversmith who taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Frederick encouraged Arnold to take part-time classes at SAIC where he was able to explore various art media.[2] His early collages, wood constructions, and intaglio prints investigate form and texture in the language of modernist abstraction.

During the 1960s, Arnold and Frederick took frequent trips to New York to explore the art scene. Arnold was influenced by the Pop sensibilities of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Indiana.[3] By the mid-sixties, his collages and assemblages combined images of soldiers, pinups, cowboys, pop stars, fashion models, superheroes, football players—an array of pop cultural heroes and objects of consumer desire. These figures were obscured by gestural marks that often left trails of dripping paint, and cropping that removed heads, faces, or limbs leaving bodies in suspended motion. More explicitly political subject matter entered his collages in the late sixties with the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the protests in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. In Above this Earth Games Games1968, he juxtaposed news photographs of soldiers in Vietnam with the charging bodies of football players—American aggression and competition on display in both arenas.

Arnold’s engagement with the political upheavals of the 1960s took him outside his studio practice and into the community. At Art & Soul, an experimental collaboration between the Conservative Vice Lords and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Lawndale, he was an artist in residence teaching art classes to neighborhood youth, and served as a judge for a community art contest.[4] Arnold also taught at several Chicago-area colleges before joining the faculty at Loyola University where he was chair of the fine arts department.[5]

Ralph Arnold, The Waiting, 1973, collage with transfer, 44 x 44 inches.

Ralph Arnold, The Waiting, 1973, collage with transfer, 44 x 44 inches.

At the South Side Community Art Center, Arnold served as a juror for the Black Expressions ’69 exhibition, whose purpose, according to Center president Grace Leaming, was “to seek out and feature established and new artistic talent in a variety of areas within the black community.”[6] Additionally, Arnold exhibited in group shows and contributed to the Center’s Art Auction beginning in 1966.[7] The Center exhibited a retrospective of his art in 1973 titled  Something Old, Something New. Arnold donated The Waiting (1973) to the Center upon the close of the exhibition. The layers of imagery collaged with paint and fabric in The Waiting provide an example of how his early explorations of textures and materiality merged with processes of collecting, cutting, and pasting the various materials of American cultural detritus. Arnold juxtaposes multiple registers of texture in photographic reproduction—glossy magazines, matte postcards, the Ben-day dots of newspaper photographs—with lace and the bold lines in red, black, orange, and blue framing the corners of the collage.

Ralph Arnold, Untitled, date unknown.

Ralph Arnold, Untitled, date unknown.

One of Arnold’s works from the Center’s collection, Untitled, is undated, but its muted palette and mournful tone distinguish it from his works from the 1960s that took direct aim at American mass culture and military imperialism. It could be a formal exercise, a compositional play between figure and ground, with slanted geometric forms flicking back and forth in diffuse fields of color. At the bottom of the composition, the shapes become the tops of stenciled letters from whose partial form the viewer can intuit the phrase: a rainy day after the war. Here, Arnold’s formal investigation is grounded in a feeling or memory, perhaps made on a rainy day after he returned to Chicago from Korea.

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, box construction, 1982.

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, box construction, 1982.

A larger assemblage, Black Music Box, 1982, is an important work in the Center’s collection. It radiates rhythmic color arrangements and collaged photographs like a visual jukebox. The piece presents a more focused theme: historical figures in black music from jazz to the present. However, the box is more than a historical diorama; it stores albums of fan photographs revealing Arnold as a collector and more enthusiastic admirer of popular cultural icons. Unlike his earlier works that took a critical stance toward American politics and culture, it reveals a sense of admiration for the power of the mass-produced objects of pop culture. A larger album can be pulled from a slot on the side, while smaller accordion albums are placed carefully in a drawer at its base inviting exploration of black music’s hidden treasures. The high level of design and craftsmanship recall the words used to describe Arnold on the opening of his 1973 retrospective at the Center: he is a “versatile and daring artist who is never afraid to experiment.”[8]

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, box construction, 1982.

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, box construction, 1982.

So.Side Community Center#411(3)

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, assemblage, 1982.

Ralph Arnold, Black Music Box, assemblage, 1982.

[1] “Ralph Arnold: Biography,” The History Makers, May 19, 2014, http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/ralph-arnold-40.

[2] John Corbett and Jim Dempsey, interview by Erin Thomas, February 9, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “W. Side Store Front Becomes Sculpture Studio,” Chicago Daily Defender, August 18, 1969, 3; “Art Fairs Successful,” Chicago Daily Defender, September 3, 1969, 16.

[5] “Ralph Arnold: Biography,” The History Makers.

[6] “Confetti,” Chicago Daily Defender, October 8, 1969, 16.

[7] Ruth H. McCoy, “You, Too, Can Be An Art Collector!” Chicago Daily Defender, February 22, 1966, 53; Doris E. Saunders, “Senator Douglas Commands Admiration Galore,” Chicago Daily Defender, November 17, 1966, p. 24.

[8] “Show Ralph Arnold’s Art at S.S. Center,” Chicago Defender, July 14, 1973, 21.


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Yaounde Olu: Atomic Energies and Black Struggle

Yaounde Olu, Prize Fighters, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Collection of the South Side Community Art Center.

Yaounde Olu, Prize Fighters, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Collection of the South Side Community Art Center.

Yaounde Olu’s Prize Fighters, 1972, one of the ten artworks recovered from the 1978 art theft at the Center, remains in the Center’s collection today. Inspired by George Bellow’s 1924 painting of of a famous fight between Dempsey and Firpo, Olu’s composition reimagines the fight as an ongoing moment of collision between the two boxers. The figures’ lean musculature is flattened into a pattern of alternating neon colors clashing in front of an electric orange background. The painting’s original title, Conflict, hints at a possible broader metaphorical struggle between the black and white figures—certainly reflecting persistent racial tensions in the 1970s after the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement.

Yaounde Olu at South Side Commnuity Art Center exhibition "Black Art is Alive and Well in Chicago," 1973. Archives of the South Side Community Art Center.

Yaounde Olu (left) at South Side Commnuity Art Center exhibition “Black Art is Alive and Well in Chicago,” 1973. Archives of the South Side Community Art Center.

Olu’s paintings, illustrations, and sculptures were exhibited at the South Side Community Art Center in the 1973 Black Art is Alive and Well in Chicago, a joint exhibition of works by Olu and sculptor Douglas Williams (a current Board member of the Center). Olu’s graphic style is well suited to her imaginative compositions that combine tribal African designs and symbols with sleek, futuristic imagery, with totemic figures adorned in patterns and immersed in fields of color.

Yaounde Olu, Super Fly Revisited, acrylic, 50 x 40 inches

Yaounde Olu, Super Fly Revisited, c. 1973, acrylic, 50 x 40 inches

As in Prize Fighters, Olu has often put her visual language of spiritual and scientific energies to the task of developing sharp critiques of social conditions and cultural representations. Super Fly Revisited is a large scale acrylic painting that reimagines the main character from Gordon Parks, Jr.’s film Super Fly (1972) as a skeleton. In a recent interview she described the painting as a critique of Blaxploitation films and the drug culture they celebrated. The bright colors do little to ease the specter of death and violence, as the skeleton-pimp stands proudly over the figure of a woman cast down beneath him. In a smaller photomontage titled Atom’s Adam, Olu takes up a similar cautionary tone evoking the dangers of atomic bombs. A stippled atomic cloud rises from the horizon with black balls of radioactive energy, or “Atom’s Apples,” emerge from its core. A photograph of a young Olu, face adorned with painted symbols, appears as an oracle of the potential dangers of scientific knowledge.

Yaounde Olu, Atom's Adam, mixed media

Yaounde Olu, Atom’s Adam, c. 1973, mixed media

Today, Olu is ambivalent about using the term Afro-futurism to describe her work despite her associations with Sun Ra in the 1970s. She maintains that her imagery originates from own vision and imagination. Regardless, the distinct vision and imaginative forms in Olu’s artworks refer to a moment in the Black Arts Movement in which artists were looking to an African past and envisioning the possibility of black liberation in futuristic terms.

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Highlights from the Center’s Art Collection

Richmond Barthé, Shoe Shine Boy, c. 1938

Richmond Barthé, Shoe Shine Boy, c. 1938

The Center’s art collection contains over 300 artworks in a range of media, including sculpture, painting, print, photography, and collage. The first artwork to enter the collection was Richmond Barthé’s Shoe Shine Boy. The sculpture was donated by attorney Frank Breckenridge to the Center in 1941, less than a year after the galleries of the Center opened to the public for the first time.

In the early years, many local artists exhibited at the Center and assisted with its programing and administration. The most notable was Margaret Burroughs. A talented and ambitious leader, Burroughs joined other artists and community leaders to raise money to open the Center, and served on the board for many years. Burroughs’ prints—several of which are in the Center’s collection—reflect her vision for social progress. In School Together and Riding Together picture the benefits of a future racial integration for African Americans.

Margaret Burroughs prints: In School Together (n.d.) and Riding Together (2011)

Margaret Burroughs prints: In School Together, date unknown, (left) and Riding Together, 2011, (right)

Works by other artists, such as Elizabeth Catlett and Harlem Renaissance photographer James van der Zee, reflect a similar interest in the lives and struggles for equality of African Americans in the early twentieth century. Archibald Motley’s Sunday in the Park—like many of his works in area collections such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago History Museum—presents the complex markers of racial and class identities in Chicago’s social and recreational spaces.

Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Sunday in the Park, 1941

Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Sunday in the Park, 1941

Allen Stringfellow, Untitled, 1962, collage

Allen Stringfellow, Untitled, 1962, collage

Despite the Center’s origins as a WPA project, artists associated with the Center did not feel restricted to the social realist, figurative style. Abstract imagery was a way for artists to experiment with form, investigate their African heritage, and interpret the texture of daily life. Jose William’s Ghetto conveys the textures and rhythms of urban neighborhoods. Allen Stringfellow’s collage, Untitled, merges modernist abstraction with the patterns and objects of black middle class domestic spaces. Layered with cut paper and swathes and splatters of paint—especially Stingfellow’s signature color, red—are fashion advertisements, floral patterns and cut crystal glasses cut from magazines, a family photograph, and cropped modernist paintings.

Works in the collection from the 1960s represent the intensity of the turbulent decade. Large scale paintings and mural panels made for the Center by William Walker, founder of the Chicago mural movement, reflect the artist’s commitment to making and exhibiting art for and in the community. The compositions both celebrate and instruct their black viewers. Additionally, the Center has several significant paintings, prints, and sculptures by AfriCOBRA artists, including Sherman Beck, Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Carolyn Lawrence, Howard Mallory, and Gerald Williams. AfriCOBRA, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, formed in Chicago in 1968 amidst the political upheavals of the student protests and the revolutionary politics of the Black Power movement. AfriCOBRA wanted to make art relevant and available to their community, whether as affordable poster prints or in Mallory’s alley exhibitions.

Barbara Jones-Hogu, Be Your Brother's Keeper, 1968, Screenprint (left) and Gerald Williams, Wake Up, 1969, Serigraph (right)

Barbara Jones-Hogu, Be Your Brother’s Keeper, 1968, screenprint (left) and Gerald Williams, Wake Up, 1971, screenprint (right)

The collection also contains ephemera and photographs from events and exhibitions at the Center and the South Side of Chicago, such as posters for the famous Artists and Models Ball and photographs of the Wall of Respect. The Center continues to collect and exhibit more recent works by Chicago artists, such as Marva Jolly and Douglas Williams, maintaining a collection that reflects the continuing vitality and creativity of the community.

Ceramic sculptures by Marva Jolly

Ceramic sculptures by Marva Jolly


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The Historic Artists and Models Ball at the SSCAC

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Souvenir Book, 1939 Artists and Models Ball, Archives of the South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, Illinois.

The annual tradition of the South Side Community Art Center’s Artists and Models Ball, a night of revelry, theater and music, began as part of the Center’s fundraising efforts in 1939. The Sponsors Committee wanted to create community-wide support for the establishment of the Center and raise funds for the purchase of an old mansion on South Michigan Avenue that would become the Center’s permanent home.

Marva Louis, the glamorous jazz singer and wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, helped make the first Ball a success by promoting the event widely.[1] Tickets sold for the ball brought in over a thousand dollars, an impressive feat during the Depression. The planners of the Ball promised a gay affair with “entertainment that will be entirely different from any other show attempted by a charitable organization.”[2] The floor show involved 150 performers, including “fifty pretty girls” dressed as artists’ models and Nubian beauties. Celebrated stage performers, such as Alberta Hunter, a cast member of the Broadway show, “Mamba’s Daughters” gained attention for the event in the local press.[3]

Lift Every Voice

Augusta Savage, Lift Every Voice and Sing, 1939.

However, the event’s glamour did not outshine the Sponsors Committee’s goal for the Center overall: “to develop an art consciousness that would provoke a desire to have in this community a cultural art center for the youth and older people with aptitude and interest in an artistic direction.”[4] In addition to the parades of costumed models, the program connected the artistic achievements of prominent African American artists and cultural figures to the potential for an art center in Chicago. The program opened with a tribute to Augusta Savage with a reproduction of her sculpture “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” originally exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Savage, the head of the Harlem Art Center, sent a telegram that was read on the evening of the Ball: “Deeply appreciate your beautiful gesture this evening … Accept my heartiest congratulations upon this step you have taken toward building an art center in Chicago.”[5]

The night’s entertainment showcased the talents of Chicago artists as well. Guests enjoyed theatrical vignettes from the Negro People’s Theater and the premier of William McBride’s “Rembrandt’s Lecture,” a swing novelty sung by Alden Lawson.[6] Charles White exhibited panels of his mural, “Five Great American Negroes,” depicting figures that were chosen to represent the creativity and cultural contributions of important African American figures. The stage designs, coordinated by Margaret Goss (later Margaret Burroughs), created a dazzling scene from ancient Egypt. For the grand finale of the program, guests were invited to join the entire cast for a parade before the judges of the costume contest.  The winner, Marva Trotter Barrows, was awarded a water color painting by Julio de Diego for her Marie Antoinette costume.[7]

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The first Artists and Models Ball, Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939.

The first Artists and Models Ball attracted so much attention that the Sponsors Committee built on its momentum of the event with the Center’s first membership drive. These early fundraising efforts ensured that, while the Center was established with the assistance of the federal government, it would belong to and be the responsibility of the community.[8]

To build on their success, the Center to aimed to match the glamour and spectacle each following year. The organizers sought “to make the ball a full scale production that would provide a workshop for blending the arts.”[9] Each event required a team of artists that contributed their talents to the design and production of imaginative themes, costumes, music, and performances. Drawings for El Roi Parker’s and Bobbe Cotton’s costume designs for the 1946 ball are part of the Center’s collection, evidence of the elaborate planning and creativity dedicated to each aspect of the event.


El Roi Parker, Untitled, 1946, Watercolor, ink, and glitter on board. South Side Community Art Center Collection, SSCAC-248.

The 1946 ball featured the talents of Carmencita Romero, “whose beautiful body,” according to the Defender, “was fortunately not too concealed, nor untastefully exposed.”[10] The risqué character of the annual Ball, offering a glimpse of an unrestrained artistic Bohemia (whether such a thing truly existed in Bronzeville or not), contributed to its notoriety and appeal. But the skilled production of the Artists and Models Ball, the most well-attended and successful annual event of the Center’s early years, reflects the hard work and talents of a diverse group of artists, civic and business leaders dedicated to ensure that the Center remained at the cutting edge of Chicago’s artistic and cultural scene.

[1] Darlene Clark Hine and John McCluskey, eds., The Chicago Black Renaissance (University of Illinois, 2012), 154.

[2] Sponsor’s Committee Meeting Notes, September 25, 1939, Archives of the SSCAC, Part I, Box 1 (1938-1945), Folder 3, Chicago, Illinois.

[3] Sponsor’s Committee Meeting Notes, October 8, 1939, Archives of the SSCAC, Part I, Box 1 (1938-1945), Folder 3; “Miss Hunter Highly Entertained,” Chicago Defender, October 28, 1939, 18.

[4] Golden B. Darby, Chairman of the Sponsors’ Committee, Letter to Committee Member, May 18, 1939, Archives of the SSCAC, Part I, Box 1 (1938-1945), Folder 1, Chicago, Illinois.

[5] Elizabeth Galbreath, “Typovision,” Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939, 16.

[6] “McBride’s Swing Tune Score Hit,” Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939, 20; “Artists and Models Ball Draws Capacity Crowd,” Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939, 16.

[7] “Artists and Models Ball Draws Capacity Crowd,” Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939, 16.

[8] Darby, Chairman of the Sponsors’ Committee.

[9] “Glamour Rules Arts Ball: Affair is Mainstay of Southside Center,” The Chicago Defender, November 29, 1947, p. 11.

[10] “Pretty Girls, Gay Costumes, Torrid Dancing Feature Artists and Models Ball,” The Chicago Defender, December 7, 1946, p. 17.

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Art for the People: William Walker’s “Wall of Love” at the South Side Community Art Center

In the spring of 1971, the “Wall of Love” was installed on the exterior of the third story of the South Side Community Art Center. The panels were painted by William Walker, the father of the Chicago mural movement, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The experimental exhibition, “Murals for the People,” took place in the MCA’s basement galleries, transforming the exhibition space into a workshop. The public was invited to observe Walker and three other public artists at work producing the mural panels that were to be installed in neighborhoods throughout the city.

With the creation of the “Wall of Respect” in 1967 at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, spearheaded by Walker in collaboration with the Organization of Black American Culture (or OBAC), the mural movement in Chicago was launched.[1] In response to the rapidly spreading movement, Joseph R. Shapiro, President of the MCA, approached the artists in November 1970 about the idea of bringing their public art practice within the museum’s walls.[2] Artists William Walker, Eugene Eda, Mark Rogovin, and John Weber were offered materials and a month’s salary to produce the murals.[3]

As activist artists committed to making the “people’s art,” the exhibition provided both a unique opportunity for recognition and dialogue with Chicago’s more established, commercially-based art scene, and to earn money from their work. However, their participation in the exhibition posed a challenge to their ideological commitment to make a truly public art, born in the street and for the community.

They agreed to participate and negotiated a contract with the MCA that ensured members of the communities where the murals were to be installed received free passes to the museum. The artists also secured a guarantee that the murals would not be censored.[4] Walker later reflected that the exhibition brought him into contact with people from the suburbs and neighborhoods with which he did not typically interact.[5]

William Walker (from left), Eugene Eda, and Mark Rogovin preparing materials for “Murals for the People,” Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo from Chicago Tribune, February 15, 1971.

The artists avoided personal fame by skipping the exhibition’s opening, and instead held a press conference later at which they released, “The Artists’ Statement,” a manifesto affirming the artists’ commitment to producing a socially relevant and public art. The four had met at the Center between September 1970 and January 1971 to collectively draft the manifesto.[6]

Panel of “Wall of Love” by William Walker, 1971. South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, Illinois.

Walker’s mural at the Center, aptly titled “Wall of Love,” emphasized the importance of love in the black family.  Later Walker noted that he chose the subject because of the importance of his own family to him, and he was concerned with the negative stereotypes associated with black families.[7]  Painted in warm sepia tones, a father holding his child is at the center of the composition, surrounded by family and members of the community. According to Waker, “A wall’s message must be meaningful … The message on a wall projects a permanent statement. Therefore it must educate the pubic and help people accept rather than reject the truth. It is only through truth that the artist can put man on the right path to save him from destruction.”[8]

On December 12, 1971, the Center was rededicated to commemorate the thirty years since it opened. Walker’s mural  on the front of the building harkened back to the public murals promoted by the WPA , the same program that initially funded the Center.[9] Battered by the elements but still eloquent, the surviving panels of Walker’s mural remain at the Center, a testament to the public mission of the Center, to promote an art for the people.

[1] For more information on the “Wall of Respect,” see Jeff Donaldson, “The Rise, Fall, and Legacy of the Wall of Respect Movement” in International Review of African American Art, vol. 15 no. 1 (1991), 22-26.

[2] Victor Alejandro Sorell, “Contextualizing ‘The Artists’ Statement’: Before, During, and After 1971,” ICAA Documents Working Papers, Number 1 of Documents of 20th Century Latin American and Latino Art Series, (September 2007), 38-45.

[3] Linda Winer, “Contemporary Art: A Clash of Emotion and Object,” Chicago Tribune, February 15, 1971, B7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William Walker, “William (Bill) Walker Oral History,” with Victor Sorell, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, June 1991, 19.

[6] Sorell, “Contextualizing ‘The Artists’ Statement’.”

[7] Walker, “Oral History,” 21.

[8] Angela Parker, “Portraying the Black Heritage on City Walls,” Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1971, A1.

[9] “A Day of Rededication,” December 12, 1971, SSCAC, Part I, Box 5 (1970-1971, undated),  Folder 9, Chicago, Illinois.

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Howard Mallory, 1930-2012

Howard Mallory, Untitled, n.d., South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, Illinois.

Adorned with pieces of cut glass, car decals, and raffia, the three wide-eyed faces of Howard Mallory’s Untitled stare intently out from a heavy wooden frame. The sculpture was purchased at one of the Center’s annual art auctions and was later accessioned into the Center’s permanent collection. When the buyer failed to retrieve the work from the Center, Mallory requested that the work be returned to him. In a note to the Board of Directors, Howard Seals, former Director at the Center, wrote that Mallory originally “wanted the piece returned to his control—so that he could destroy it.”[1] In the end, the work was accessioned into the permanent collection, where it remains as an impressive example of the late artist’s imaginative works.

Howard Mallory’s “Super Lady” was exhibited in “5 in Search of a Black Aesthetic” in 1969. Photo from Chicago Daily Defender, June 14, 1969.

Mallory was a sculptor, working primarily in ceramics early in his career. He first exhibited with AfriCOBRA in 5 in Search of a Black Aesthetic at  WJ Studio and Gallery in 1969, and became a member of the group in 1972.[2]As a member, he worked to produce prints of the artists’ works so they could be inexpensively distributed to a wide audience, fulfilling a founding principle of the collective.[3] In 1973, he exhibited his ceramics and sandcastings at the Art Center twice in 1973; first in the Craft Show, and later in Africa-cobra: Paintings, Prints, Weavings.[4]

Mallory began making sculptures from found objects in the 1990s after he became blind due to glaucoma.[5] The constructions combine reclaimed detritus with everyday objects and materials to create portraits that refer to the designs of African masks. These later works continued to embody the principles laid out by AfriCOBRA at its founding. The mask-like constructions memorialized notable African American figures. Installed along the outside wall of the garage-turned-studio behind his house, Mallory’s work is “art for the people” at street-level.

Howard Mallory’s South Side Chicago studio. Photo by Gerald Williams, http://africobra.com/Image12.html.

Upon visiting Mallory a few years before his death, Gerald Williams, a fellow member of AfriCOBRA, commented:

I gazed at the numerous compositions of wood, metal, glass, stone, string, mirrors, plastic, and cloth with their iconic preciseness, directness and mystical qualities. Eyes and teeth made of broken glass glittered and gleamed in the auburn and indigo shadows beckoning the late September afternoon sun. Here was the exemplary “far seeing room” of a man whom time has blessed with good visionary hands that once shaped lumps of earth into pottery, but which now construct fascinating personages out of whatever materials he can find to transform.[6]

Untitled embodies this aspect of Mallory’s artistic practice: the transformation of the everyday into the visionary, and the ordinary into the monumental. Yet Mallory’s direct address through humble materials and alley exhibitions kept it grounded in the neighborhood. As David Lusenhop, owner of Lusenhop Fine Art in Detroit and a collector of Mallory’s work, noted, “He remained on the South Side of Chicago his entire life. He believed in the community and its future.”[7]  Mallory made art primarily for the community that inspired it, and his work is a fitting addition to the Center’s collection.

[1] Howard E. Seals, Memo to Board of Directors, May 7, 2008, SSCAC, Chicago, Illinois.

[2] Gerald Williams, “Presenting Howard Mallory,” http://africobra.com/HowardPage1.html.

[3] Barbara Jones Hogu, “Inaugurating AfriCOBRA: History, Philosophy, and Aesthetics,” NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art 90 (Spring 2012): 90-97.

[4] Flyer, SSCAC Part III, Box 20, Folder 1973; Grace N. Leaming, “President’s Annual Report: 1973, South Side Community Art Center: Chicago,” SSCAC Part III, Box 20, Administrative: Board of Directors, Folder 1973(1), Chicago, Illinois.

[5] Graydon Megan, “Howard Mallory, 1930-2012: Blind artist specialized in ceramics and masks made of everyday things,” Chicago Tribune, November 2, 2012.

[6] Gerald Williams, “Presenting Howard Mallory,” http://africobra.com/HowardPage1.html.

[7] Maureen O’Donnell, “Chicago man was part of influential black artists group,” Chicago Sun Times, October 19, 2012.

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Charles White, Chicago’s Native Son

Charles White, Spiritual, 1941. Oil on canvas, 40″ x 30″, South Side Community Art Center, Chicago.

Among the treasures of the South Side Community Art Center collection is Spiritual, painted by Charles White in 1941. Spiritual was one of the last works made by White before he left Chicago for New Orleans.[1]

For artists like White, in the 1930s and 1940s, Chicago was home to a burgeoning arts scene that combined artistic vision with progressive politics. With a growing interest in African American history and culture inspired by the writings of Alain Locke, artists in Chicago formed the Arts and Crafts Guild, a collective of artists that shared techniques and skills in spite of limited access to artistic training. They met regularly to discuss art and politics, raise funds for their artistic pursuits, and organize exhibitions. The youngest member of the Arts and Crafts Guild at age fourteen, White found mentors in older artists, including George E. Neal, Eldzier Corter, and Charles Sebree. Neal in particular was dedicated to creating a community of artists and hosted regular, informal art lessons in his studio based on his training in courses at the Art Institute of Chicago. Later, the South Side Community Art Center, established through the sustained efforts of this local community of artists and intellectuals, became the nexus for politically-engaged artistic activity.[2]

After attending Englewood High School, White was awarded a scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he completed a rigorous two-year course in one year.[3] Throughout, White continued to be an active participant at the Center. He served as chairman of the Artists’ Committee before the Center opened its doors in 1940. As chairman, White proposed to organize an exhibition and auction of artworks in the fall of 1939 to help with fundraising for Center’s founding.[4] He also taught art classes and helped to initiate the Negro People’s Theater with Margaret Burroughs and Bernard Goss.[5] Referring to the arts scene based out at the Center, White later stated, “The way the community structure was, if you were interested in any of the arts you eventually knew everybody else, every other Black brother and sister who was interested in the arts. We developed a social relationship and a very close-knit one.”[6]

Life drawing class taught by Charles White at the South Side Community Center in Chicago, between 1938 and 1941. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

At the first Artists and Models Ball in 1939, White exhibited a partially completed mural, Five Great American Negroes.[7] The mural depicts important African American figures including Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Marian Anderson, and George Washington Carver. White’s artwork would continue to be defined by an interest in the historical struggle and the daily lives of African Americans.

Charles White, at work in his studio, holds a finished sketch of “Five Great American Negroes.” Chicago Defender, October 21, 1939.

Even after White left Chicago, his work continued to be exhibited at the Center. In 1966, when the annual art auction that White initiated 27 years earlier was reinstituted to fund the Center’s ambitious programming, artworks by White were among those exhibited and sold.[8] In 1970, the Center honored White during a visit to Chicago with a reception and exhibition. The exhibition included a number of White’s paintings hung alongside works from the Center’s collection representing the wide range of artistic trajectories in African American art.[9]

Charles White’s work and his place in the dynamic community of artists at the South Side Community Art Center demonstrate the potentials for the interconnections among cultural and political activism.

[1] Andrea D. Barnwell, Charles White, David C. Driskell Series in African American Art (Petaluma: CA Pomegranate Communications, 2003).

[2] Stacy I. Morgan, Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.

[3] Doris E. Saunders, “S.S. Art Center Reception for Charles White,” Chicago Daily Defender, February 24, 1970, 18.

[4] Sponsor’s Committee Meeting Notes, May 15, 1939, SSCAC, Part I, Box 1 (1938-1945), Folder 3, SSCAC, Chicago, Illinois.

[5] Morgan, Rethinking Social Realism.

[6] Sharon G. Fitzgerald, “Charles White in Person,” Freedomways, 20 (Fall 1980): 158-62, quoted in Morgan, Rethinking Social Realism, 53.

[7] “Artists and Models Ball Draws Capacity Crowd,” Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939, 16.

[8] Herbert Nipson, Auction Committee Chair, letter to “Art Patrons,” n. d.
, SSCAC, Part I, Box 4 (1957-1971) Folder 12, Chicago, Illinois.

[9] Theresa Fambro Hooks, “South Side Art Center to Honor Charles White ‘Dean of Black Art’,” Chicago Daily Defender, February 7, 1970, 21.

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Herbert Nipson’s Contributions to the South Side Community Art Center

Jose Williams, Ghetto, South Side Community Art Center, Chicago.

The painting “Ghetto,” by Jose Williams, was donated to the South Side Community Art Center’s permanent collection by Herbert Nipson. The painting still bares a hand-written inscription, “Property of Herbert Nipson,” on its stretcher.  The work is but one of many legacies of Nipson’s time at the Center. Nipson, an influential editor at Ebony Magazine and well-respected leader in Chicago, served as Chairman of the Board at the South Side Community Art Center for many years. Nipson’s commitment to the Center and its mission ensured its continued prominence in Chicago despite difficult economic times.[1] It was Nipson’s vision and know-how that reinvigorated the Center and its programs beginning in the 1960s.

Nipson earned degrees in journalism and creative writing at a time when most universities in the United States refused to matriculate students of color. He joined Johnson Publishing as associate editor of Ebony magazine in 1949. “He was a guiding force in shaping Ebony. His vision was essential to making the magazine what it is today,” said Linda Johnson Rice, Chairman of Johnson Publishing.[2] Nipson was an avid photographer and knowledgeable about fine art. He helped to build the Johnson Publishing Company’s art collection, as well as his own collection, both focusing on art works by black artists in Chicago.[3]

Oscar Brown, Jr. (left) assisting Herb Nipson (right) at the first Annual Art Auction at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1966. Jet Magazine, March 17, 1966.

Nipson organized the Center’s first Annual Art Auction held at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1966.[4] In addition to benefiting the Center, the auctions served to support local artists through the sale of their work, and exposed Chicago collectors to works by local, black artists. “[Mr. Nipson] wanted to make sure local artists were exposed to the collectors. He was the one who really got Chicagoans to start collecting art by African Americans. That auction was his baby, that was his heart and joy,” said Diane Dinkins-Carr, who in 2011 stepped down as the Center’s Board President.[5] The auctions were another way the Center created an audience for black art.

Successful fundraising to pay off the Center’s mortgage and make repairs to the building paved the way for important programming. In 1968, Nipson helped curate “Black Heritage: An Exhibition of African Sculpture and Artifacts,” a joint project with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Illinois Art Council.[6] On display at the Center were works of art by artists from West Africa from the collections of the Art Institute, the Museum of African American History, and private collections.[7] The exhibition was part of an ambitious program of activities that summer and fall, including art and photography workshops, poetry readings, and talks on African art by artist Jeff Donaldson and on collecting by artist and collector William McBride.[8] Upon the opening of the exhibition, Nipson declared, “The Art Center, long an important part of the cultural life of the South Side of Chicago, is again serving the community as it was designated to do.”[9]

Nipson’s contributions to the Center is ever present in the building, the collection, and the Center’s legacy in Chicago as a prominent cultural institution.

[1] Herbert Nipson, Letter to “Artist Friend of the Center,” April 1966, SSCAC, Part I, Box 4 (1957-1971) Folder 14, SSCAC, Chicago, Illinois.

[2] Joan Giangrasse Kates, “Herbert Nipson, 1916-2011,” Chicago Tribune, December 28, 2011.

[3] Adeshina Emmanuel, Chicago Sun-Times, “Former Ebony Magazine Executive Director,” December 24, 2011.

[4] Herbet Nipson, Letter to “Art Patrons,” n.d., SSCAC, Part I, Box 4 (1957-1971) Folder 12 (Events 1966), SSCAC, Chicago, Illinois.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “African Sculpture, Art Exhibit Opens Thursday,” Chicago Daily Defender, August 5, 1968.

[7] “Black Heritage Exhibit at Southside Art Center, Chicago Daily Defender, August 10, 1968.

[8] Frank Shepherd, News Release, n. d., SSCAC, Part I, Box 4 (1957-1971) Folder 13a, SSCAC, Chicago, Illinois.

[9] “African Sculpture,” 1968.


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1978 Art Theft at the South Side Community Art Center

South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, Illinois

On the night of April 24, 1978, a rear window of the South Side Community Art Center was broken. The thieves who entered the Center late that night absconded with seventeen works of art, many of which were hanging in the Center’s gallery for the exhibition “Historic Blackness.”[i] The stolen works represented some of the most valuable art from the Center’s permanent collection and a few works on loan for the exhibition. Several of the artworks dated back to the 1930s and the Center’s founding, while others were by Chicago artists such as Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones, and John Sibley. The breadth and value of the artworks taken prompted speculation that the thieves were familiar with the market for black art, and the works would likely be transported out of the city to be sold elsewhere, never to be recovered.[ii]

While the works were valued collectively at $11,000, the loss of notable artworks by prominent artists in the Center’s collection could not be quantified. Robert L. Kimbrough, President of the SSCAC, stated, “These paintings illustrated in magnificent and meticulous elegance some of the dreams, disappointments and successes of black Americans in various stages of their struggle for personal and racial justice.” He referred to the theft as a “repugnant crime” by which “a page was ripped from the cultural documentation of our fight for freedom.” [iii]

 Less than two weeks after the incident, the Chicago Sun-Times still had not reported on the crime. Kimbrough wrote a letter to Marshall Field, owner of the Sun-Times, to express his disappointment that the paper did not cover the incident.[iv] A week later, the Sun-Times published an article reporting that the artworks were too well known to be easily sold, and the Center was offering a $500 reward for information that led to the recovery of the artworks. The same day the article was published, a handwritten note was attached to the Center’s front door explaining that the author had taken the some of the  artworks from the person who stole them so they would not be sold.

 Two days after the note appeared, the Center received a series of mysterious phone calls that led the Acting Director, Howard Seals, to recover ten of the seventeen stolen works. The caller (likely the author of the note) directed Seals to “Keep cool, you will get them all back at different locations.”[v] The anonymous tips led Seals to alleys and basements in abandoned buildings within blocks of the Center.

 Additional break-ins occurred in July and August resulting in the less significant losses. The Board of Directors responded by raising additional funds to increase security at the Center.

Later that year, John Sibley donated Third World Man to the Center. The work was the first of the ten paintings recovered by Seals. The gift marks a historic moment for the Center’s permanent collection and its continuing commitment to collect and exhibit important works by Chicago artists. [vi]

John Sibley, Third World Man, 1974, Oil on canvas, 30 x 36″

[i] Press Release, South Side Community Art Center, South Side Community Art Center Archive (SSCAC), Part III, Box 21, Folder 1978, Chicago, Illinois.

[ii] “Art Center Recovers Paintings,” Chicago Journal, May 31, 1978.

[iii] “17 Paintings Missing from Black-Art Center,” Chicago Sun-Times, Friday, May 12, 1978.

[iv] Robert L. Kimbrough, letter to Marshall Field, May 4, 1978, SSCAC, Part III, Box 21, Folder 1978, Chicago, Illinois.

[v] Fitzhugh Dinkins, memo, Sunday, May 14, 1978, SSCAC, Part III, Box 21, Folder 1978, Chicago, Illinois.

[vi] Howard Seals, letter to John Sibley, November 7, 1978, SSCAC, Part III, Box 21, Folder 1978, Chicago, Illinois.


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Greetings from the archives!

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Welcome to the next phase of the “Art of a Community Speaks” blog. I will be contributing to the ongoing research into the South Side Community Art Center’s art collection, the people who have passed through its doors, and the historic building by sharing stories from my research in the archives. As a graduate student in art history at UIC and long-time Chicago resident, I am thrilled to be a part of this project. SSCAC’s continuing history of exhibiting Chicago artists, hosting performances, and offering art classes to the community has ensured its place among Chicago’s great cultural institutions. Check back for updates as I share what I find!

Best wishes,

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