The clay pots of Marva Jolly and carved wooden staffs of David Philpot evolved from humble childhood fascinations – hers with mud pies and his with sticks.
The two longtime friends, now mature and well-known African-American artists in Chicago, are featured in “Kindred Spirits,” an exhibit celebrating Black History Month from Jan. 27 through March 14 in Gallery I of the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.
Concurrently on exhibit in Gallery II upstairs are interpretations of the same theme by Evanston artists Elmer Conner, Ebony Joy, Ra Joy, Martin Mancera, Nadine “Yadi” Royster, Peggy Tarr and Esther Williams-Hays.
Ms. Jolly and Mr. Philpot have much in common, says Chie Curley, who curated their exhibit. Both came to art in middle age and are self-taught artists who teach others. They create from the most basic of materials – mud and sticks – work that “straddles the line between craft and fine art,” says Ms. Curley.
Ms. Jolly, born in Mississippi in 1937, uses the vocabulary of the rural South in her work. Mr. Philpot, a product of Northern urban housing projects, seems to reach far beyond his environs for the forms and motifs of his pieces.
Ms. Jolly’s ceramic pots, pit-fired and charred, bear the influences of the old crops she watched her father burn and their ashes, left as fertilizer. They attest to the female artistry she saw in the farming community around her.
The quilting bees in her small town, the star quilt under which she slept, the simple meals her mother presented so artfully, revealed to her the “rich legacy of the black people, especially black women,” she says, and continue to inspire her art.
Ms. Jolly turned to a career in ceramics in 1982 after more than 20 years in teaching and social service, making what she calls “an audacious decision for a black middle-aged woman.”
The exhibit features her “story pots,” which Ms. Curley describes as “figurative and narrative.” These clay pieces seem to Ms. Jolly to “reflect the voices I’ve heard and listened to all my life… .[They] also talk about the capacity to grow, a quality that is present in all of us.”
A young David Philpot was so inspired by the movie “The Ten Commandments” he longed to create a staff as powerful as that of Charlton Heston’s Moses. But wood was as scarce in his impoverished city environment as in the biblical desert.
He waited till dark to cut off the limb of a tree growing near his apartment door to make his first staff, called Genesis, in 1971. Many of those that followed were carved from the “stinkweed” trees that spring up in abandoned lots.
Not until 1981, when he won first place in an arts and crafts festival at the DuSable Museum of African American History, did Mr. Philpot consider the staffs as anything but a hobby – or consider himself an artist.
He carves, paints or decorates the abstract patterns of his walking sticks with beads, chains, mirrors, leather or faux jewels. Reminiscent of African artifacts, they have appeared in exhibits around Chicago and the United States.
Works by several artists either born in or living in Evanston appear in Gallery II.
Margaret (“Peggy”) Tarr paints most often in oils, with a color palette enlivened by time spent in Hawaii. Encouraged by friends and family to pursue her art from an early age, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Art Institute. The New Jersey-born artist says she hopes her work “captures the compassion and influence of [my mom, neighbors and teachers] whom I loved so much and who cared deeply for me.”
The portrait of a woman in a black straw hat is of her late mother, a domestic worker she describes as “intelligent, ethical, and humorous…aware of social niceties but not consumed by them.”
Ms. Tarr submitted “Evenin’,” an acrylic painting of a black man holding a jacket, for the first Black History Month exhibit at Noyes. She broke the glass while readying the work for the show; luckily, the late Michael Phillips was able to replace it in time.
Esther Williams-Hays, who has degrees from the Art Institute, Kendall College and National Louis University, is a master storyteller and arts educator who is exhibiting photos from two mission trips to Ghana in 2005.
“Going to Ghana was like going home,” she says. She observed the human connection between Africans and African-Americans in their work and day-to-day activities.
And she was stunned by the resemblance of the land to Mississippi, the home of her sharecropping father, commenting, “My first visit to Mississippi I was…struck by the vivid colors in the landscape. The color of the dirt, the green all around…left me speechless…So, when I first arrived in Ghana I immediately felt the same thing, along with the feeling that I belonged.”
The public can meet the exhibiting artists and enjoy refreshments and music by the Walter Clark Jazz Quintet on Jan. 27, 3-5 p.m., at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St.