Perkins, Marion 1908–1961
Marion Perkins 1908–1961
Sculptor Marion Perkins emerged from Chicago’s South Side during the 1930s to become one of that city’s most celebrated artists. Largely selftaught, Perkins carved out an impressive body of work from scrap stone salvaged from abandoned buildings. The prestigious Art Institute of Chicago was one of the first to recognize his talent and invited him to participate in several shows. In 1951, when the museum bought his sculpture Man of Sorrows, the purchase made national headlines. He was hailed by art critics in both the black and white press and won several prominent awards. In the book African Americans in Art: Selections from The Art Institute of Chicago Daniel Schulman, a curator of twentieth century art, wrote “[Perkins’s work] is remarkably beautiful, emotionally authentic, and politically impassioned.”
Despite this acclaim, Perkins has remained largely unknown. Outside of Schulman’s essay, very little has been written about him. Schulman attributes this in part to Perkins’s tendency to create recognizable figurative pieces at a time when the art world was fast embracing abstractionism. However, this is what made Perkins’s art so powerful. Schulman noted that Perkins “believed that art could convey ideals effectively only through recognizable imagery.” A self-avowed Marxist, Perkins was committed to racial equality and fervently believed that the world could become a better place through social reform. Perkins imbued his art with these convictions, producing work that both celebrated African ancestry and challenged black and white alike to face up to the world’s inequities. The result was a body of work that Schulman suggests deserves wider recognition.
An only child, Marion Perkins was born in 1908 on a farm on the outskirts of Little Rock, Arkansas. At eight, his parents died and he went to live with an aunt in Chicago. The South Side—where Perkins was raised—was the heart of the black community in Chicago and like New York City’s famed Harlem Renaissance, it also gave rise to a distinctively African-American art movement of writers, musicians, and visual artists. In the thirties this movement was further fueled by the federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) which supported art programs throughout the country,
At a Glance…
Born in 1908 in Marche, AR; died on December 17, 1961, in Chicago, IL; raised by aunt Doris Padrone in Chicago; married Eva Giilon; children: Robert, Toussaint, Eugene. Politics: Marxist.
Career: Sculptor. Works include: John Henry, 1943, Moses, 1943, Woman with a Shawl, 1943, Figure at Rest, 1947, Seated Figure, 1947, Portrait of Eva, 1947, Ethiopia Awaking^ 948, Skywatcher, 1948, Mother and Child, 1949, Man of Sorrows, 1950, Study in Flight, 1950, Dying Soldier, 1952, Unknown Political Prisoner, 1953, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, 1955. Also worked as a custodian, dishwasher, postal worker, newspaper seller, and freight handler.
Awards: Robert Rice Jenkins Prize, 1948; Julius Rosen-wald Fellowship, 1948; Pauline Palmer Purchase Prize, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1951.
particularly in areas where poverty and unemployment were high. The WPA also created many programs geared specifically to black Americans.
Before reaching his senior year at Wendell Phillips High School, Perkins had to quit in order to work. Over the next few years he had several menial jobs including dishwasher and janitor. He also worked as a part-time custodian for a local WPA project. This job put him in daily contact with art. During this time, he married Eva Gillon and they had three sons, Robert, Toussaint, and Eugene. Despite not finishing high school, Perkins became an intellectual. He was well read and had a keen interest in politics and social theory. He also wrote articles on art and politics, particularly Marxism. Perkins and his wife built a network of friends that included intellectuals and artists both black and white. People that moved in the Perkins’s circle included W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Richard Wright.
It was during the Great Depression that Perkins first realized he could “make things” he explained in a 1947 Chicago Sunday Tribune article. In between jobs, Perkins had started to carve soap into faces and figures. “It was a good way to pass the time and good practice.” By the late thirties, Perkins had bought a newsstand. He had also moved from carving soap to carving stone salvaged from abandoned buildings. Perkins sculpted alongside his newspaper stand and soon drew the attention of the local art scene. Schulman quoted Peter Pollack, a Chicago gallery owner that showcased the work of African-American artists, “I was driving my car down on 37th Street at Indiana Avenue, and there I saw a huge red stone, next to a newsstand. A few days later, I was driving down there again, and noticed that a head of Lincoln was beginning to emerge. I stopped after a double take, and asked a little Negro boy who the stone belonged to; he said it was his father’s.” Pollack soon became Perkins’s most fervent supporter and introduced him to Si Gordon, a WPA sculptor and instructor. Under Gordon, Perkins studied various sculpting techniques—it was Perkins’s only formal training. In October of 1938, Perkins participated in his first exhibition. His work was powerful and distinctive, characterized by the use of closed contours—the lack of open space between limbs and the rest of the body.
In the summer of 1940 Perkins participated in an ambitious show, “Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro,” and had the opportunity to meet many prominent African American artists. The following year, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Chicago for the grand opening of the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC). The opening drew national attention, highlighting the talent of Chicago’s African American artists. Perkins became a vital part of the center both as a teacher and exhibitor. In 1942 he was invited to show his sculpture John Henry at The Art Institute of Chicago’s prestigious “53rd Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture.” The sculpture depicted the mythical black American folk hero who pitted his strength against a steam drill. Schulman quoted Perkins who wrote of John Henry, “With the first advent of the machine, many workers felt bitter toward it because it took their jobs, robbed them of their bread, and worse still, their creativeness.” Schulman noted that the sculpture was a prime example of Perkins’s ability to infuse his work with “emotional and psychic intensity… through very spare means.” “Tightly squeezed within the contours for a nearly cubic limestone block,” Schulman explained, “the figure of John Henry grasps a hammer and presses it against his neck and shoulder.”
In the early forties Perkins accepted a large commission from the Biltmore Hotel in the toney resort town of South Haven, Michigan. The six life-sized sculptures were of children in traditional Dutch costume. South Haven had originally been settled by immigrants from Holland and many of the buildings emulated a Dutch style. However, according to Schulman, Perkins gave the children distinctively African facial features. Nevertheless, the hotel owners, the guests, and the locals liked the sculptures and according to Schulman they “became a cherished landmark.” Sadly, both the hotel and the sculptures were destroyed in the early seventies. Lost too is the reason Perkins gave the Dutch children black features. Schulman asks rhetorically in his article, “Were [they] an expression of distaste over his patron’s employment of exclusively black help? Was he making the point that ethnicity is irrelevant to national identity? Or was the artist reminding his audience of the simple fact that people come in all colors?” Considering his commitment to advancing racial equality with his art, any of the above could be true.
In 1942 Perkins sold the newspaper stand and took a position with the U.S. postal service. He sculpted on weekends and at nights to accommodate his work schedule. Schulman noted that another reason that Perkins remains unknown is because, unlike many prominent artists, Perkins had to maintain a full time job outside of art. As a result, Perkins produced a smaller body of work than many of his contemporaries. Nonetheless, by the late forties, his art had become more refined. Often seated or reclining, his figures were large and fleshy with stylized African facial features. According to Schulman it was during this period that Perkins began to produce a “totally original, emotionally powerful series of heads and figures that… signal his mature style.” It was also about this time that Perkins started to gain the notice of the white press. Schulman quoted a prominent Chicago art critic who wrote of Perkins’s entry in a group show, “Up and beyond the rest of the sculpture rises the pure art in the marble head of Negro Woman …. It carries the burning humbleness of centuries in his work.”
Perkins’s skill also attracted collectors and in 1947 IBM Corporation bought his Figure at Rest. That same year he won his first sculpture prize from The Art Institute of Chicago for Ethiopia Awakening. Schulman described the piece, a veiled female head carved in marble, as “one of his landmark works.” He continued, “Perkins’s manipulation of texture, contrasting the highly polished face with two patterns of coarse carving in the veil and hair, is more elaborate than in previous work.” In April the following year, Perkins received a Julius Rosenwald grant of $2,400 allowing him to travel to New York City where he visited museums and artists.
In 1951 Perkins’s most famous sculpture Man of Sorrows debuted at The Art Institute of Chicago’s famed “Chicago and Vicinity” series. Standing over 44 inches tall, the sculpture is the head of a black Christ figure. It received rave reviews and drew the attention of the national press including Ebony and Life. Schulman wrote “The head’s simplified, protruding eyes are shut tight; the pursed lips are both hidden and defined by a short, stubbly beard that closely follows the contours of the face; the hair is veined with smoothly carved thorns… [the] expression of agony is arresting.”
Schulman also quoted Perkins’s comments about the piece, “It shows the Negro peoples’ conception of Christ as a Negro—which is as it should be.” He continued on a political note comparing the suffering on the face of the sculpture to the “Negro problem” facing America at that time—namely the struggle for civil rights. The work was awarded the museum’s Pauline Palmer Purchase Prize allowing the museum to purchase the sculpture for its permanent collection.
Throughout the fifties, Perkins produced works that reflected his political ideology, including his stance against war. Dying Soldier and Unknown Political Prisoner are prime examples. His final major project was a series of sculptures entitled Skywatchers that was his commentary on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan during World War II. Each piece in the series represents someone in Hiroshima looking up to see the bomb descending. The series included two plaster works, Study in Flight and Man Looking Upward. Schulman wrote that “in contrast to his generally contemplative figures, compact in mass and form, these terrified figures with their open contours, interact vigorously with the surrounding space.” Another piece in marble, entitled Sky watcher, depicts a seated man, face upturned to the sky. When it was donated to Chicago’s Peace Museum in 1998, the museum’s director said in a press release, “Skywatcher is the most artistically significant piece in the Museum’s collection of nearly 10,000 pieces.” For the rest of the 1950s, Perkins continued to work on his Hiroshima sculptures and exhibited his work in various shows. He also served as a mentor to younger artists and spoke out on the need for African-American artists to embrace their ancestry.
On December 17, 1961, at the age of 53, Perkins succumbed to cancer and died. Tragically, his wife Eva died the same year, also of cancer. In addition to his moving body of work, Perkins left behind an intriguing history of contradictions. He created commanding works of art from limestone and marble scavenged from dilapidated buildings. He worked by day in lowly service jobs, yet spent his nights and weekends creating art worthy of museum galleries. He did not finish high school, yet as a self-taught artist and intellectual he made powerful political statements. He also left behind a belief that African Americans could and should embrace and create art. He impressed many young artists during his time at the SSCAC and was one of the founders of the Lake Meadows Art Fair, a Chicago street fair that highlighted the work of African-American artists. To continue that legacy friends and family established the Marion Perkins Memorial Foundation to encourage art education for African Americans. Though Perkins has been mostly ignored by the historians of twentieth century art, his work continues to inspire and awe those who are lucky enough to come across it.
African Americans in Art: Selections from the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL: The Art Institute, 1999.
Great Negroes, Past and Present, Chicago, IL: Afro-Am Publishing Co., 1969.
Chicago Sunday Tribune, August 24, 1947.
The Paul Robeson Celebration, www.cpsr.cs.uchicago.edu/robeson/links/events/details/peacel.txt
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