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Two Chicago Writers Respond to the Art of Archibald Motley

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Latoyah Wolfe reading from novel in progress (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — An event last Thursday at the Chicago Cultural Center brought together two strands of African-American culture in Chicago: the wide-ranging exhibition of paintings by Archibald Motley, and an hour of readings by two African-American Chicago writers, Latoyah Wolfe and Eric May. The paintings and their context have been ably covered already in Hyperallergic. What this event did was to show that the world depicted in Motley’s art is rooted in the experience of Chicago as a place, and continues in the work of contemporary Chicago artists in other media.

Eric May reading poem "Response to Portraits by Archibald J. Motley Jr."
Eric May reading poem “Response to Portraits by Archibald J. Motley Jr.”

Latoya Wolfe, winner of the Zora Neale Hurston-Bessie Head Fiction Award, is an emerging writer whose novel in progress, Vulture City, portrays her own childhood in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, which is the scene of many of Motley’s paintings of nightclubs and street life. Eric May’s novel Bedrock Faith (which won the prestigious Chicago Public Library 21st Century Award) is a panorama of life in a fictionalized southside-Chicago neighborhood named Parkland. Each writer took turns reading excerpts from their own work, and the work of other African-American authors, grouped in subjects that mirrored the sections of the Archibald Motley exhibition: family; church; nightclubs; the street; grandmothers.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Mending Socks, 1924. Oil on canvas, 43.875 x 40 inches (111.4 x 101.6 cm). Collection of the Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Burton Emmett Collection, 58.1.2801. © Valerie Gerrard Browne. (via nasher.duke.edu)
Archibald J. Motley Jr., “Mending Socks” (1924), oil on canvas, 43.875 x 40 inches (111.4 x 101.6 cm). Collection of the Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Burton Emmett Collection (image © Valerie Gerrard Browne, via nasher.duke.edu)

There were readings from the work of Ann Petry, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Cyrus Colter, and May also read from a poem that he wrote as a direct response to the Motley painting “Mending Socks”:

And Mending Socks, the cross and crucified
Christ on the wall makes clear this is
No Protestant home,
With its table fruit
Looking almost, sort-of, Cezanne-esque,
With its half a portrait, also on the wall,
A longhaired woman,
A Portrait in a portrait, and
I mean no harm in calling her,
Like the other items mentioned,
An accessory, not an accessory
After the impassive facial facts,
But co-conspirators if you will,
Whose presence completes the story.

The writing ranged from the quick rhythms and declamatory voice of jazz-influenced poetry, to the closely-observed, gesture filled narrative fiction of Wolfe and May. Hearing these authors read with Motley’s canvases on all sides brought out the obvious parallels of subject matter, but they also seemed to bring the paintings even more to life, as if providing sound for the world of swirling movement in such Motley works as “Tongues (Holy Rollers)” or “Hot Rhythm.”

Eric May in front of "Hot Rhythm" (1961)
Eric May in front of “Hot Rhythm” (1961)

Speaking to Hyperallergic, Latoya Wolfe said:

I came up in Bronzeville through the 1980s and 1990s, which is where Motley spent a lot of time. It was very different from when he was there, but I still got a real sense of familiarity the first time I saw his paintings. As far as what I see as the similarities between his art and my writing … he learned the rules of his art [at the School of the Art Institute], then later broke them. That’s inspiring to me.

Latoyah Wolfe in front of "Another Mexican Baby" (1953-54)
Latoyah Wolfe in front of “Another Mexican Baby” (1953-54)

At the end of the event, May asked everyone in the small but attentive audience to shout out the name of an ancestor, echoing the ending of a play by Wesley Brown that May had cited earlier. As each person called a name, it created a curiously moving moment of reflection that bound together everyone in the room with the world of families and crowds depicted in the paintings all around, and the words of the African-American poets and novelists celebrated moments before through the voices of these two contemporary writers.

Chicago Authors Respond was part of an ongoing series of events related to the exhibition Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington Street, Chicago.

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