Sculptor Margot McMahon wanted to build a testament to some of Chicago’s finer citizens and make it a family project. She called her father the artist, her brother the photographer, and her friend the writer. Together they created “Just Plain Hardworking,” a show of drawings, sculpture, photographs, and brief histories that document the lives of ten longtime Chicago residents.
Some of their subjects are well-known locally. Florence Scala and Monsignor John Egan, for instance, were leading activists during the 60s. But some are not known, even here, and none is world-famous or wealthy. Oddly, the pursuit of money and power did not motivate these Chicagoans.
“These people contributed to Chicago’s history by being good and decent and caring about others,” says McMahon. “They worked for themselves, yes. But along the way they didn’t hurt anybody. They didn’t step on people or knock them down. They tried to make Chicago a better place to live.”
The idea for the show emerged from a dinner McMahon had with Egan, a family friend, in November of 1987. McMahon and a writer had just completed “These Hands Have Done a Lot,” an exhibit documenting the lives of residents in north-suburban Highwood. Why not try a similar project, Egan suggested, celebrating Chicagoans?
“It was a natural idea,” says McMahon. “And it was something I could do with my family.” As she conceived the show, she would sculpt the ten residents chosen, and her brother, William Franklin McMahon, would photograph them. Her father, Franklin McMahon, would make drawings of the subjects’ neighborhoods. And James Ylisela Jr. would be brought in to write brief biographies.
To cover expenses, McMahon secured a $9,600 grant from the Retirement Research Foundation. To help select subjects, she assembled an advisory board: urbanologist Ed Marciniak, church worker Peggy Roach, writer Margy McClain, and Egan.
“We agreed that we wanted an ethnic cross section of Chicago,” says McMahon. “But there was some debate: Should we have a Pole or a Lithuanian? How many blacks should we have? Should we have Puerto Ricans and Mexicans?
“My advisers had their preferences. Egan wanted to profile community activists. Ed kept coming back to the need for ethnic diversity. Margy liked the idea of featuring an unknown artist. Everyone agreed we needed subjects from different neighborhoods.”
Eventually McMahon decided to choose five men and five women at or near the age of 65. The winnowing process was tough. One subject, Delois Barrett Campbell (of the Barrett Sisters gospel group), was selected from a list of black women that included an artist, a theater producer, a labor leader, and an Olympic sprinter.
“All the candidates were great people,” McMahon says. “But we felt some of the others were already well-known. We wanted Delois to get some deserved attention.”
McMahon met Hildur Lindquist, an 87-year-old Swedish-born homemaker, by chance over lunch at a north-side deli. Ruth Rothstein, president of Mount Sinai Hospital, came to McMahon’s attention by way of a phone call on a different subject from Rothstein’s daughter-in-law to McMahon’s husband. The other subjects are Frank Lumpkin, a black steelworker who led the campaign to save Wisconsin Steel; Walter Piotrowski, a Polish stockyard worker; Maria Enriquez de Allen, a Mexican artist; Frank Drehobl, a German stained-glass-window maker; and G.H. Wang, a Chinese developer.
“This project took me to neighborhoods I wouldn’t necessarily visit,” says Franklin McMahon. “I went back and forth; I looked the neighborhoods over. I was trying to find a symbolic feeling that represents the nature of the neighborhood. For Frank Lumpkin, I drew the corner of 106th and Torrence because that’s where Wisconsin Steel is.
“It was winter when I did that drawing. I sat in my car with the motor running. I started with a charcoal pencil, and after two or three false starts it took. What I came up with is a little cubism. It’s not a montage, but I give you a view of buildings there that you could not see from the vantage point of where I drew the drawing.”
His daughter had each subject sit for her six times.
“While I was sculpting, I taped interviews with the subjects with equipment I borrowed from a friend who’s a video artist,” says McMahon. “The tapes will be donated to the historical society.”
Each subject was first modeled in clay, she says. “A plaster mold is made later,” she explains, “cast in dark gray durable fondue cement, and mounted on a light gray pedestal for eye-level viewing.” Her sculptures were informed by what she learned in her conversations with the subjects.
“With Lumpkin, I wanted to represent his strength as a man and a leader,” she says. “He was a boxer; he spent his whole life at hard labor. He was the man who rallied the workers at Wisconsin Steel after the plant was shut. He’s sturdy and strong, and I tried to capture him as if he were standing at a podium leading his people.
“I have Hildur holding a coffee cup, because she’s so generous and giving. If you come to her house, she immediately offers you something to eat. That’s the kind of woman she is. Delois’s sculpture is the only one that has no hands. She’s such a powerful, inspirational singer–I wanted the sculpture to go up to one voice singing.”
“Just Plain Hardworking” will open at the Chicago Historical Society, 1601 N. Clark (642-4844), July 4. After three months there, the show moves to the State Street office of Talman Home Federal Savings & Loan Association. Talman then plans to exhibit it at several neighborhood branches.
“I learned a lot from meeting these people,” says McMahon. “Lumpkin in particular had a great line. He said: “What we are about is the ebb and flow in the struggle for survival.’ That about sums it all up.”