People Powered: Robert Earl Paige Gets His Overdue Due at the Hyde Park Art Center

Robert Earl Paige in the studio at Hyde Park Art Center/courtesy Hyde Park Art Center

When I meet up with artist Robert Earl Paige at his second-floor studio inside the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago in Woodlawn, he is busy doing what he knows and loves best: working. Paige shows me some cardboard shapes he’s been playing with, models for pieces that might one day be made of clay or something else. Through his eyes, all material is potential.

“They can be anything, that’s the great thing,” he says. “I am a repurposer. Any white paper or paper bag or corrugated board that I see, it invites me to put a motif on it, it invites me to create. It’s the only way to live.”

Paige has been living this way a long time and now, at eighty-seven, one of Chicago’s most fascinating and ingenious artists is inviting people to come see the results. “The United Colors of Robert Earl Paige” at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) surveys sixty years of Paige’s output as a textile designer, fabric maker and visual artist, working across painting, drawing, printmaking, collage and most recently, ceramics. It is the largest exhibition of his career to date.

With us at his studio is Allison Peters Quinn, the curator of the show. She first met Paige during his 2019 residency at HPAC, where she is the director of exhibitions and residency programs. Initially she considered including Paige in a group show. But after getting to know him and observing his steady output in the studio, she quickly changed her mind.

“Once I started finding out more and more about Robert’s work and over sixty years how much there is, this show was just going to be a drop in the bucket of what we could be showing. It kept upgrading and upgrading.” The exhibition, which opens April 6, will take over the entire ground-floor gallery and extend into a hallway. Paige left the decisions about what to include and how to present it almost entirely up to Quinn who says, “It’s really exciting to be able to do that, I feel he totally trusts me.” She pauses. “It’s also terrifying.”

To create a framing for Paige’s prolific and varied artistic output, Quinn focused on pieces that convey styles that recur across his work, based on his interest in nature motifs and modernist painting as well as African tradition and pattern. She’s included some of the silk scarves he started producing in the mid-sixties, saturated-in-color squares whose curvaceous lines and repeating shapes seem almost to be dancing or wriggling about—and in fact a couple are named “Reverence to Mondrian Boogie Woogie.” A series of small, black-and-white drawings on paper depict lines and squares expanding across the page, like animated film frames or a bird taking wing. There are pieces of stoneware and rocks covered in melted crayons that shimmer as if still wet, as well as some of his intricately incised, glazed clay tablets.

Robert Earl Paige, “Rhythmic Patterns,” 1992 Hand Painted and Dyed (Gum Resist) Crepe de Chine Silk 34 x 4

Taking a page from Paige’s own process, Quinn is also repurposing designs from the show into new forms, including commissioning a textile from local studio The Weaving Mill. The fabric, based on a drawing by Paige’s daughter when she was young, will be used to create room dividers in the gallery. And there will be music, per Paige’s request.

Says Quinn, “It will be subtle but there should be some melody, rhythm. All his work is about rhythm. I want people to get a sense of who Robert is as a person, he has such a personality. So a clean white space does not make sense to me. A typical gallery space like that doesn’t give a sense of who Robert is.”

Robert Paige one of Newcity’s 2023 Art 50/ Photo: Joseph Meitus

Perhaps the first thing to notice about Robert Paige is his sense of style. He is always beautifully dressed, with neatly creased trousers and sharp-looking shoes, sporting a cool hat and richly hued silk scarf draped around his neck, one of his own hand-painted creations. His casually elegant mix of patterns, tones and fabrics harkens back to an earlier era of men’s fashion, the tradition of fine dress. He talks with as much elan and flair as his clothing. His voice often drops into a soft, low growl to accentuate a word or idea. He refers to his studio apartment as his “atelier” and frequently speaks in aphorisms, asserting that “simplicity is its own best design” or that “color is the skin of the world.”

“I’m into always being in presentation form,” Paige tells me, adding “That means now I can go anywhere. I feel comfortable going anywhere.”

Paige’s career has taken him all over the world, to Milan, where he designed scarves for the Italian fashion house Fiorio and to West Africa, a trip that inspired his seventies-era Dakkabar line, a collection of fabrics for home furnishings once sold in over one-hundred Sears, Roebuck stores. He continues to live and work where he was raised, in Woodlawn, on Chicago’s South Side. As a child he roamed the neighborhood searching for adventure, fishing for bluegill in the lagoons of Washington Park in the mornings before school and ice-skating in the winter. He recalls climbing up “to the very top end” of Lorado Taft’s landmark sculpture “Fountain of Time,” which runs along the western end of the Midway Plaisance, to hide from his mom.

Robert Earl Paige, “1OAK – Love,” 1998, Hand Painted and Dyed (Batik) Silk Crepe, 30 x 44

Those neighborhood rambles helped him cultivate his sense of color, his keen eye for the textures and patterns in nature, and his lasting appreciation for the beauty to be found in everyday objects. Rhapsodizing over the “wonderful patina” on the smashed beer cans he collects, Paige is both amused by and purposeful about all the stuff he’s been picking up off the street since he was young. “I save the tabs off of pop-tops. What the hell am I going to do with them? I don’t know! I’ve got a whole collection of rocks that I pick up. I love the shapes. I’m constructing a piece out of the different shapes.”

Woodlawn has shaped Paige in other ways. “I had everything on the South Side,” he says. “At the point when I was coming up, we had music, art, scatter-site art galleries all over the place.” Once he ventured beyond the neighborhood, though, other opportunities emerged. He got a job at Carson Pirie Scott’s flagship department store on State Street and then a friend told him about an opening at the architectural firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. He says both experiences were invaluable in forming who he is today, but it was at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) that his art and design sensibilities flourished. There he studied with Grace Earl, a fabric artist who taught interior design.

“I would come early in the morning and help her mix the dyes. She had a bulletin board with Harper’s Bazaar designs and stuff. It just blew my mind. I really started looking into and being observant of the things existing in my environment and it was wonderful.”

Robert Earl Paige, “United Colours of Paige,” 2008, Incised, Hand-painted and Glazed Ceramic Slab, 10¾ x 6¼ x ½

Paige had never been downtown before getting the job at Carson’s, never been inside the Art Institute before attending SAIC. His experience speaks volumes about the segregation that still divides Chicago’s neighborhoods. But Paige moved through it all with ease, saying “I brought the combination of who I was on the South Side to the North Side.”

Paige also easily navigated the divide between the commercial and artistic design worlds in Chicago. Alongside the connections he made at SOM, he became friends with people like the designer Angelo Testa, the first graduate of László Moholy-Nagy’s New Bauhaus in Chicago. He attended SAIC with future members of The Hairy Who arts collective. (“One night I went in and all this smoke was billowing out of the door. It was Karl Wirsum doing some shit in there,” Paige says, laughing.) He still has a sense of wonder about the world he found.

“The idea I was around when Mies van der Rohe was happening, Moholy-Nagy, that Skidmore group, boy what a wonderful time it was. The difference then was there was all this great camaraderie, not only on the North Side with Skidmore but on the South Side, the Black Arts Movement, the Black Power movement, all the wonderful artists that came out of that period. It was a glorious time.”

Robert Paige in his Carriage House Studio, 536 E. 50th Street, 1968-69/ Courtesy of Images of Black Chicago: The Robert Abbott Sengstacke Photography Archive, University of Chicago Visual Resources Center LUNA collection. Copyright Myiti Sengstacke-Rice

Romi Crawford is an art historian and educator who has been collaborating with Paige for the past eight years. She emphasizes his connection to the emerging artistic and activist collectives on Chicago’s South Side in the sixties and seventies, groups like the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA) and the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), who came together to create the Wall of Respect (WOR), an iconic 1967 public art work that, before it was destroyed by fire, paid homage to significant figures in Black culture and history, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Billie Holiday, and helped launch a far-reaching movement of community mural-making.

“Robert is one of those really important people within the genre of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) in Chicago,” says Crawford. “You can mark out the players, the artists, the projects, the art things that they made, the ways they were making. There were painters and photographers, the folks who did the Wall of Respect, some dancers and choreographers like Darlene Blackburn. And Robert is the designer.”

While Paige did not contribute to the Wall of Respect, Crawford says he was there on-site and was close to some of its makers, including the late artist Barbara Jones-Hogu. In the 1970s, he and Dr. Carol Adams, who later served as the CEO of the DuSable Black History Museum, created the nonprofit Everyday Art, an effort to infuse art through the community of South Shore. They produced a couple of summer festivals featuring performers like Muntu Dance, Kelan Phil Cohran and Oscar Brown Jr., at what is now the South Shore Cultural Center but until 1974 had been a private and segregated club. Paige recalls “It was the first time we were allowed to get into the country club.”

Robert Earl Paige, “Opulence,” 2017, Tibetan rug, hand knotted wool and silk, 9 x 12 feet

Paige worked against other exclusions, too. He says in the early eighties, alongside Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton, both members of the avant-garde music organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) and the art historian Jeff Donaldson, he picketed a gathering of out-of-town philanthropists at the Museum of Contemporary Art, for neglecting to visit artists on the South Side.

For Crawford it is important to understand how the collective spirit and ethos of that time, place and people is fully realized in Paige’s artistic process. “When I encounter a Robert Paige piece, it messages something so clearly through the design and materials, about hope and possibility and potential. It’s very exciting to me in that way. He makes a beautiful thing out of what’s available, he doesn’t need a lot of money, he doesn’t need a studio, he doesn’t need to make it overly precious. And then, he gives it to you! Robert is a really profound art presence and model because of the full arc of that expression.”

Paige says he follows the first principle of AfriCOBRA, “Cool-Ade Colors,” defined by Jones-Hogu as an aesthetic and representational strategy depicting the creative energy and dress of Black people: “Black, positive, direct statements created in bright, vivid, singing cool-ade colors of orange, strawberry, cherry, lemon, lime and grape. Pure vivid colors of the sun and nature.” He also adheres to his own set of principles, which he calls his “Five Cs: Courage, Consistency, Confidence, Curiosity and Creativity.”

Robert Earl Paige, “Power to the People” Series, 2022, Glazed stoneware, Handpainted stoneware, 19 x 11 inches

To those I would add a sixth, Community. One of Paige’s most iconic and frequently recurring designs is called “Power to the People,” a series of repeating and overlapping semicircles nestled together, an image of assembly and the strength to be found in numbers. Even as Paige nurtures his individual artistic practice he also approaches art as a communal, community-forming activity, an act of transmission and teaching. He admires another principle, from the Bauhaus. “I try to incorporate into my understanding that if you teach a person how to make something you’re teaching them how to design. I really love that idea.”

His commitment to community will weave its way into the HPAC exhibition. Paige has curated a selection of work by artists who inspire him, including the muralist and sculptor Bernard Williams and the ceramicist Lori Bartman. Paige calls this group of seven or eight artists his “parapluie,” citing the French word for umbrella and conjuring an image of people clustered in common purpose, a concept he draws from the Omega Workshops, the 1930s production house in London that produced goods made by artists. Paige insists on a pragmatic approach to art-making, saying “I’m a fine artist in a commercial body. I believe in: You see this, you like this, you buy this. And I get my hair cut.”

His commitment to teaching will also be part of the mix. A separate space for workshops will be constructed at the center of the main gallery, so that young people who come to the show will have opportunities to make something throughout the run. Paige says he hopes the show will express a fundamental aspect of his work: “Where is this coming from? It’s coming from a love for the community and an involvement in the community.”

Paige and the community he emerged from have gotten more love over the past decade or so, with major shows about the Black Arts Movement in Chicago and elsewhere. Romi Crawford says “It means so much to them because they have been waiting, they have played a waiting game. There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes, really the work of a lot of Black curators trying to write about and put these people on the map. It’s great that the big shows have come.”

Quinn concurs, saying “He’s so ingrained into Chicago culture. I want everyone to know who Robert Paige is and what he does and by the end of this show for people to say, ‘That looks like a Robert Paige design.’ So that [he] becomes part of the lexicon of art in Chicago.”

Beyond the HPAC exhibition, Paige is working on a project to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Smart Museum of Art and another installation in New York City. Despite his ease moving in and around the art world, it was only a couple of years ago that he began to think of himself as one of them, after the designer and curator Duro Olowu curated a show of Paige’s designs for Salon 94 gallery in New York City.

“I had considered myself a textile designer but in fact I am an artist and my medium has been textiles. So that was a whole new awakening for me.” He adds, “It’s a great time to be Robert,” and then, with a smile, recalls what one of his friends told him, “There’s never been a time that it wasn’t.”

“The United Colors of Robert Earl Paige” at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 South Cornell, on view April 6-October 27.

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