Sculptor, art educator
Geraldine McCullough is one of the most important African American woman sculptors ever, and arguably one of the most important American sculptors of any race or gender in the last half century. Her metallic sculptures combine abstract forms with identifiable representations to create a unique and powerful style informed by such wide-ranging influences as African ritual art, European expressionism, and modern American art. A resident of the Chicago area for most of her life, McCullough has influenced subsequent generations of artists through her work as an art instructor at both the high school and college levels.
Geraldine McCullough was born on December 1, 1922, in Kingston, Arkansas. Her family moved to Chicago when she was three years old. Aspiring to an artistic career from an early age, McCullough enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1948. While studying at the Art Institute, she was awarded the John D. Steindecker Scholarship and the Memorial Scholarship, and was also awarded a citation for her figure painting skill. After receiving her degree, McCullough accepted a job teaching art at Chicago's Wendell Phillips High School. She taught at Phillips for 14 years, from 1950 to 1964.
McCullough continued studying at the Art Institute through the first several years of her teaching career, earning a master's degree in arts education in 1955. Around this time, she began to achieve success as an artist as well. By the late 1950s, her paintings were being shown in national galleries around the country. In 1961 she was awarded first place at Atlanta University's Annual Art Exhibit.
McCullough took up sculpture in the early 1960s. She chose to focus on structures made out of bits of scrap metal fused together, with the help of her husband Lester, a journeyman welder who taught her how to weld and helped her lug heavy metal structures around. Her public debut as a sculptor came in 1963, when she participated in the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in Chicago. McCullough's breakthrough into the major leagues of art took place the following year. In 1964, she entered her metal sculpture Phoenix in the 159th annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Artists normally entered this competition by invitation only, and typically only well-established artists were allowed to participate. But McCullough, uninvited, decided to submit her work anyway. She ended up walking away with the exhibition's top prize for sculpture (and the most prestigious prize for sculpture in America), the George D. Widener Memorial Gold Metal. Her upset victory instantly transformed her from a virtual unknown into a widely acclaimed artist, placing her among the most prominent sculptors in America. A 1964 Ebony article described Phoenix—a 250-pound abstraction of welded steel and copper named for the mythological bird that burns up and is then reborn from its own ashes—as "a rough, powerful work that suggests several views of a mutilated form struggling to free itself from its moorings … against the force that tries to smother the fire out of which it is being re-born." To McCullough, the Phoenix was the perfect symbol of the struggle of African Americans to rise toward freedom from under the crushing weight of oppression.
As a rising star in the art world, opportunities for travel and media appearances were suddenly abundant for McCullough. She was written up in a number of magazines, including Time, Ebony, and Chicago, and she gave many interviews on radio and television. She even did a guest spot on the television game show To Tell the Truth, perhaps the most important hallmark of emerging celebrity in 1960s American pop culture. In 1966 the Russian government made her a distinguished guest artist, taking her on a tour of the Soviet Bloc that included stops in Moscow, Leningrad, Azerbaijan, and Prague (Czechoslovakia). Returning home, McCullough presented a one-person show of her work at the Ontario East Gallery in Chicago in March of 1967, where her sculptures received lavish praise from top art critics.
In 1968 McCullough joined the faculty of Rosary College (later renamed Dominican University) in River Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She held that position through 1988, serving as chair of the Art Department for the last 12 years of that span. Ironically, McCullough taught painting and drawing at Rosary, but not her specialty, sculpture. As she explained in an April 1973 Ebony article, "From an educational standpoint, I am too close to sculptural forms, and I might have an unconscious tendency to impose my thinking." Upon her retirement in 1989, the University awarded McCullough an honorary doctorate.
Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the West Side Development Corporation commissioned McCullough to create a sculpture honoring Dr. King to be installed at one of its housing developments in Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood, on the site of a structure that had been burned out during the rioting that followed King's death. As she prepared to work on the new piece, McCullough noticed that King's facial features bore a resemblance to pictures she had seen of ancient African kings. She decided to base the work on that notion. The resulting cast bronze sculpture, which McCullough called "Our King," presented King as a ruler of the West African kingdom of Benin. To emphasize King's philosophy of nonviolence, McCullough placed a broken sword in one hand and a Tibetan prayer wheel in the other. A dove of peace hovers above his head. Formally unveiled in 1972, Our King quickly became something of a West Side landmark.
McCullough continued to produce art prolifically after retiring from her college teaching career. Her sculptures were exhibited in many important venues, including the Chicago International Art Expo in 1990 and the National Museum of Women in Washington, D.C., in 2001. McCullough's art was also featured in the traveling exhibit Three Generations of African American Women Sculptors, which visited many of the nation's most prestigious museums in the late 1990s. Her sculptures are on permanent display in many museums and private collections. McCullough's commissioned sculptures also grace public areas in many locations, mostly in Illinois, including near the State Capitol in Springfield; the University of Illinois-Chicago; the Oak Park, Illinois Village Hall; and the banks of the Fox River in Geneva, Illinois.
In 2000 the arts council of Oak Park, Illinois, where McCullough has made her home for many years, presented her with the Joseph Randall Shapiro Award in recognition of "exceptional contributions to the arts." Her receipt of the award completed a cycle of sorts for McCullough; she had been commissioned to create the award sculpture itself when the Shapiro prize was established four years earlier.
At a Glance …
Born Geraldine Hamilton on December 1, 1922, in Kingston, AK; married Lester McCullough, Sr. (deceased); children: Lester Jr.. Education: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, BA, 1948, MA, 1955.
Career: Wendell Phillips High School, Chicago, art teacher, 1950–1964; Rosary College/Dominican University, art instructor, 1968–88, art department chair, 1976–88; working sculptor with numerous exhibitions and commissions, 1963–.
Memberships: The Links Inc., 1975–; Arts Club of Chicago; Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; Oak Park (IL) Area Arts council.
Awards: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, George D. Widener Gold Medal for Sculpture, 1965; Dominican University, honorary doctorate, 1990; Oak Park Area Arts Council, Joseph Randall Shapiro Award, 2000.
Addresses: Studio—117 S. Lombard Ave., Oak Park, IL 60302.
Heller, Jules, and Heller, Nancy, eds., North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century, Garland, 1995.
Riedy, James L., Chicago Sculpture, University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Sanders, Charles L., ed., Ebony Success Library, vol.1: 1,000 Successful Blacks, Johnson Publishing Co., 1973.
Ebony, June 1964, pp. 113-119; April 1973, pp. 95-102.
Jet, April 3, 2000, p. 6.
"Geraldine McCullough," Woman Made Gallery, www.womanmade.org/biography.html?1 (September 12, 2006).
State of Florida Commissioner's Taskforce on African American History, www.afroamfl.com (September 12, 2006).