Artist Archibald Motley Inspires Citywide Collaboration
The paintings of Archibald Motley inspire Columbia students in their own creative work.
Groundbreaking artist Archibald Motley documented black life in the 1930s and '40s, including scenes from Chicago jazz clubs and the historic Bronzeville neighborhood. For the first time in 20 years, a retrospective of Motley's paintings returns to the Windy City—and the Columbia College Chicago community is connecting to his work in a myriad of ways.
Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, a 42-painting exhibition, will be on display through Aug. 31 at the Chicago Cultural Center. The exhibition's programming, Connect, Collaborate, Create: The Art of Archibald Motley, invites the entire city to a series of gallery talks, performances, film screenings and more. Noted Motley scholar and Art + Design professor Amy Mooney curated the programming, which was funded by the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in a partnership with Columbia College Chicago. Professors worked Motley into their curriculum; students used Motley's work and themes as a springboard for their own creative projects.
Here, five Columbia faculty, staff and students share the varied and creative ways they each connect to Motley's work.
“Art’s hard today,” says Scott Hall, director of Jazz Studies and senior lecturer in the Music Department. “You have to reach across disciplines in order to reach audiences.”
That’s exactly what his music students have done for a series of performances tied to the Motley exhibition. Ensembles have performed across the city, even setting up in the heart of the Chicago Cultural Center to play alongside the paintings. Students wrote compositions inspired by Motley’s work and engaged in hour-long improvisation sessions to capture the art’s electric spirit. Hall’s jazz students found it especially easy to connect with Motley’s paintings of Chicago’s music scene. He estimates that through the collaboration, the music has reached more than 1,500 people so far.
“Anything you can do to bring people together in a room, that’s a really important part of what a musician or artist needs to do,” he says.
What did Archibald Motley's Chicago sound like—not just the music, but the sounds of the street? Monica Hairston O'Connell, executive director of the Center for Black Music Research, expanded on that question to create a "sonic portrait" of the city's jazz clubs and Bronzeville neighborhood.
"What did these women's heels sound like walking down the street? What did these crowded apartments filled with children sound like?" she asks.
She shared her research in a presentation during a symposium at the Chicago Cultural Center, “As She Sees Herself: African American Women in the Work of Archibald Motley,” bringing Motley’s Chicago to life one sound bite at a time.
When junior music performance major Karolina Prus began composing a piece for her jazz ensemble to perform at the Chicago Cultural Center, she looked to the music of Archibald Motley’s era—jazz, swing and big band. She also adapted elements from the artist’s bustling city scenes.
“I was inspired a lot by the colors, so I tried to make things very exaggerated and bombastic,” she says. “I was also inspired by [Motley’s] use of layering in his paintings, and the general density. I tried to bring that in by using different layers of instrumentation and sounds.”
The ensemble performed Prus’ composition at the exhibition alongside a tap dancer, who improvised to match the song’s high energy. Prus loved how the collaboration blurred lines between art forms: paintings inspiring music inspiring dance.
“Really, it's all expressing similar emotions and human experiences,” she says. “The fact that we all worked together kind of brings that vibe together. I really appreciate that.”
At the Chicago Cultural Center, Dance student Hannah Santistevan performed a choreographed routine with a group of eight tap dancers alongside the jazz ensemble for a standing-room-only crowd. The music was inspired by Motley’s paintings, and the collaboration captured the lively spirit of the artist’s city scenes that depict a tangle of dancers and musicians.
"It was really nice to have that combination of classical tap dance and classical jazz band music," said Santistevan. "When we did the show, the jazz band was fast, so we had to respond to that! You have to be very flexible with collaborating with live music."
Education professor Anne Becker encouraged her graduate students to attend educator events connected to the exhibition. Through a series of workshops, teachers-to-be wrote lesson plans connecting the exhibition to their own classrooms. The lesson plans were also posted to the exhibition website for other educators to access. The involved student teachers brought the curriculum to Chicago Public Schools classrooms, encouraging K-12 students to connect with Motley’s work on a personal level.
Becker sees the collaborations as a great extension of Columbia’s role as an educational institution. “That’s an important thing to always be generating in our city—keeping people well informed, keeping them open to new things,” she says. “I think a college should always do that for the community it lives in.”