Oak Parker sculpts ode to Gwendolyn Brooks

Margot McMahon is raising funds to install work near poet's childhood home

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

An Oak Park artist is partnering with students at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, along with various Chicago literary organizations, to raise funds to have a bronze portrait of the school's namesake — the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks — installed in Brooks Park, which is steps away from her childhood home on Chicago's South Side. 

Margot McMahon, a board member of the Oak Park Area Arts Council and a founding commissioner on the Oak Park Public Art Advisory Commission, said she's already created the clay mold for "Gwendolyn Brooks: The Oracle of Bronzeville." The work is currently being cast in bronze at True Form Productions, a foundry on the West Side.

The installation, scheduled for June 7, caps "Our Miss Brooks 100," a series of events that took place throughout 2017 to commemorate the poet's 100th birthday. 

During a phone interview Tuesday, McMahon said she conducted an extensive amount of research last year, such as talking with Brooks' daughter and reading her vast body of work, before actually making the sculpture. 

"During the year of Our Miss Brooks 100, I was able to delve into what made her such a remarkable poet and writer," McMahon said. "I really wanted to offer visitors the chance to walk through the life of Gwendolyn Brooks." 

The installation, McMahon said, is designed to "both educate and invite public interaction" with Brooks' life and work — both of which have been underappreciated by the wider public, she said.

"The Our Miss Brooks 100 planning committee wanted everyone in Chicago to know that Brooks was the first black Pulitzer Prize-winning poet," McMahon said. "She was the Illinois poet laureate. I would talk to a lot of people who would say, 'I know that name, but what does she do again?'" 

McMahon, who has also sculpted the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Richard Wright, said the installation will feature a porch structure that is modeled to represent Brooks' favorite childhood writing spot. From the porch, visitors will walk along a stepping-stone path engraved with quotations from Annie Allen, the 1949 book of poetry that earned Brooks the 1950 Pulitzer Prize. 

A walking path will lead to a circular seating area called a "council ring," that will allow visitors to write and reflect on Brooks' poetry. The centerpiece of the ring, McMahon's bronze portrait of Brooks (which will rest on a granite cube), will remain in the park for five years. 

"I wanted to give that intimacy of her listening and recognizing each individual," McMahon said, before reciting the first few lines of a Brooks poem ("And if sun comes / How shall we greet him?"). 

"There is always in her work an optimistic viewpoint of a really dark thing, such as weeds growing in the backyard," McMahon said. "What makes her an oracle is that she can always find hope out of the darkness." 

A GoFundMe campaign created to raise money for the installation was started in March. By April 10, it had generated $2,770. For more, visit: gofundme.com/CLHOFBrooks.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com   

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