Celebrating our Miss Brooks

Artbeat

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

On the 101st anniversary of the birth of Gwendolyn Brooks, June 7, the poet laureate of Illinois was eternalized with the unveiling of a bronze bust capturing her deep in thought — and inviting others to do the same. 

The bust is part of a larger installation by Oak Park sculptor Margot McMahon, who created space around the larger-than-life likeness that includes stepping stones engraved with lines from the 1949 book Annie Allie, for which she became the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. There is also a writing porch from which to ponder, pen a poem, or absorb what those who stopped before have written. It's all located in Gwendolyn Brooks Park in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago.

"Those [sculptural] objects become experiential as you walk through them, as you understand more about her life," McMahon said.

In 2016, when an Our Miss Brooks meeting convened to discuss what could be done to celebrate the 100th anniversary, McMahon spontaneously offered up the idea of a statue. She didn't just create it by looking at a photo, but by getting to know the woman as best she could, meeting with Gwendolyn's daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, and family friend Cynthia Walls, attending discussions by scholars and poets at Centennial Brooks, and studying how other artists were currently portraying Brooks. Then she got to work.

"My art is about what I want it to say," McMahon said. "I keep it experimental, variable, looser."

An artist her whole life, McMahon grew up with a mother who was a writer and a father who was a visual artist. One of nine children, she said every one of them does something creative.

Margot teamed with her brother, William Franklin McMahon, and her father, Franklin McMahon, on the 1990 exhibit at the Chicago History Museum (then the Chicago Historical Society) when she created "Just Plain Hardworking," five men and five women, ordinary Chicagoans, who helped make the city what it is. Her sculptures of each are made of Fondu cement. Franklin painted the neighborhood of each featured person and William photographed them.

From that exhibit, McMahon's bust of gospel singer Delois Barrett Campbell is now at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington D. C. Her 9.5-foot-tall bronze, whole-body sculpture of Msgr. Jack Egan, "A Twentieth Century Priest," stands outside the DePaul Student Union on the Lincoln Park campus and challenges the community by asking, "What Are You Doing for Justice?" etched into the limestone base.

McMahon works in different media — wood, stone, metal — depending on what the subject warrants. As a lifelong environmentalist, she is driven by nature in much of her work. She has sculpted birds from a tree destroyed by hurricane-force winds, for example.

"I sculpt human, plant and animal forms to draw attention to all our decisions on a daily basis," she said. "Life on earth is eternal as long as we take care of it."

The sculptor is also intrigued by collaboration and teaching. She has created works at two Oak Park schools, "Hope" at Beye Elementary and "Cuddling Intelligence" at Julian Middle School, where she taught students about sculpture, but in an interactive way.

Her art can also be seen at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe ("Boy Gardener," a bronze, located in the Rose Garden); as part of the Chicago Tree Project, where artists create works from dead trees ("Perch on Preen" on an ash at Nathan Hale Elementary, "Flock of Birds" on an elm in Jackson Park, and "Checkmate," knight and queen chess pieces located at the Belmont entry to Lake Shore Drive). For more on Margot McMahon, visit margotmcmahon.com.

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