Ode to Geraldine McCullough, The Sculptress who Taught Richard Hunt
by Tash Moore
In Ebony Magazine’s archives, there’s a large photo of a woman of then-indeterminable stature. She was intently applying herself to her task. Breathing fire through an apparatus, oblivious to the public attention that’s suddenly caught up to her private practice. She’s Geraldine McCullough, and throughout the latter half of her life, she would go on to become a giant in Chicago’s art scene, leaving behind the unassuming image of public school teacher, wife, and mother for an unconventional second act.
The photo reports that Mrs. McCullough, a trained welder, had won–seemingly out of nowhere–the George D. Widener Gold Medal for her sculpture of a Phoenix. Close associate and mentee Jonathan Green remembers that that was only part of the story:
“She didn’t develop her talent from any recognition. She was already talented since she was a young girl. She may not have been recognized sooner because she was already teaching, married, and raising a family at that time. Women artists were mothers, they didn’t have the time [to work on achieving exposure], yet McCullough had support from her husband and friends who promoted her work.
“By the time any award is given to African-Americans, they’re already very celebrated amongst their peers. The coverage McCullough received in Ebony was because of Mr. Herbert Nipson who worked at Ebony and who hoped to introduce and encourage Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in the collection of art. So their building on Michigan Avenue was a culture center. They had the largest collection of art by African-Americans at that time. And Mrs. Johnson traveled extensively, constantly meeting artists. Mr. Nipson made sure they had the finest collection in the country and that’s why Ebony Magazine had such great art coverage in the black community at the time.”
Mr. Green went on to describe Ms. McCullough as a powerhouse figure, both as a practical, intentional artist herself and as someone who championed multiple artists, whether they were welders or in other fields. She was also unconcerned with limiting her connections based on race, class, or income. She was an active proponent of Chicago artists in an era when it would’ve made a lot of sense to go elsewhere, such as New York:
“At the Art Institute in Chicago, they didn’t have work like Ms. McCullough’s and they should’ve. The only one they had [by a black artist] was Jacob Lawrence. So many artists left Chicago and went to other areas, like New York. You had a tremendous cultural movement in Chicago and that wealth of greatness wasn’t being displayed and Ms. McCullough was a part of all of these cultures…”
“And she believed in work. I think the most important thing she believed in was doing the work…. Richard Hunt is the most famous artist who came out of Chicago who happens to be African-American and she was his teacher. That’s what influenced her work and that’s what made her so meticulous.
“McCullough did the cut-outs and real work herself. The only time she had an assistant was when her pieces were too heavy to lift. Not only did she work hard as an artist, she invited a lot of people into her circle and if you were a young artist, you were going to meet two or three [established] artists per visit and that’s phenomenal. She was a force to be reckoned with in Chicago. The Isobel Neal Gallery rivaled any gallery in Chicago.”
Green met Ms. McCullough while still a student at the Art Institute of Chicago where she’d earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in painting and art education. He remembered being impressed with the way she mingled older WPA-era artists who were still practicing–such as Charles White–and younger less-established students or graduates or devotees with ease. She also recognized the importance, along with Isobel Neal, of purchasing contemporary art for what eventually became a part of the Jonathan Green and Richard Weedman Collection. Two of Ms. McCullough’s pieces, Echo 5 and Ode to Joanne, remain in his permanent collection today:
“When I met her, she was in her middle 60s, so I didn’t know her as a young woman, but we decided that it was so important that when we met these people [donors] that it was important to start purchasing artwork. We have about 1500 pieces of art we have collected, a lot from the Chicago area. When I left the Art Institute of Chicago, I was successful and I became integrated into this art world.
“Ms. McCullough was racially integrated in her socializing and connections, she became friends with people from many backgrounds.”
Returning to the piece in Ebony, Ms. McCullough cited the Civil Rights Struggle as particularly inspiring to her work. As she was quoted in the article: “It seemed to me, that the Negro, crushed so long under the weight of oppression, is now re-born and soaring toward complete freedom. That was the inspiration for ‘Phoenix,’ but actually, what I tried to express in the piece was something more universal… that universal struggle of peoples and things, their wrestling with adversity.”
The article goes on to showcase Ms. McCullough’s daily work with students after school who couldn’t afford private lessons as well as her relationship with her biggest supporter: her husband. Lester McCullough was already a master sculptor and metal worker. Ms. McCullough displayed curiosity and tenacity, quickly picking up in middle age what others took decades to learn from a much earlier age.
Her first finished piece was a depiction of Christ at Calvary, not unusual imagery, but quite traditional compared to some of her works in later life which were created decades after Freedom Summer. Her work began to center African spirituality as well as her vivid imagination. Mr. Green supplied Black Art in America with photos of their in-house pieces which are in turn tremendous, and intricate.
Ode to Joanne, was finished in 1992 and is a wonderful homage to the expectation process, the carrying of an idea not yet birthed. A barefoot pregnant figure stands with arms raised, hands clasped in a prayer position, and a crown atop her head. When most people consider or define Expectations, they may think of disappointed hopes or untimely surprises, yet so many things come out of expectation. New life, new work, and new modes of understanding can all arise from that same place where the unknown is being crafted. The arms are encircled many times over by what appears to be thin gold bands. The center, not yet taking definitive shape outside of her body, also looks like armor. Protection for and within the unknown. She is regal, standing with red velvet esque fabric drifting down from her shoulders. Her head is a helmet. She is an expectant warrior, ready to do battle with whatever is coming, yet also ready to welcome it should it come in peace. There’s something ancient and simultaneously timeless about the composition. Expectations have come before us and will be there after us.
Echo 5, on the other hand, feels much more African in origin. A figure, possibly male and chief-like, sits cross-legged and calm. Their face looks like the mouth of an instrument, possibly an inverted horn. Commentary on speech and the weight of sound? They wear a much bigger, even ostentatious crown, with various pieces, some shaped as possible jewelry. This figure is either royal or religious or both. Their crown has a cap that’s nearly papal. They are at rest though and silent. The molds of jewel-like pieces are each significant and intentional. Suns, triangles, stalks, frame the non-face. A granite-like pattern makes up the legs. The feet, if they can be called that, are tiny though it’s inconsequential as this figure doesn’t need to run or hide. They are comfortable where they are and with who they are. They are African inspired and calm. They reverberate without needing to utter a sound. Someone in the beyond, Ms. McCullough’s spirit lives on doing the same.
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Tash Moore is bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur and activist deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion in all spheres. She currently spends her time between Detroit & DTLA.
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