Dreams Come True

On the night before the Lake County Art League’s annual contest in 1998, Tracy Crump stayed up late to finish her entry, a highly ornamented drawing of a female figure. She’d put in a full day’s work on it already, and at some point, pencil in hand, she fell asleep. When she woke up and looked at the paper in front of her, she says, it had changed: “A bigger portion of the picture was finished. And there was no mistakes.”

In some ways, Crump says, she’s always worked like that. Self-taught, she rarely plans what she’s going to do. She just starts painting or drawing and lets the work take form. Crump didn’t win best of show, but she did place in the Lake County contest–not bad considering that it was the first time she’d exhibited her work.

She entered the same contest the next year without placing and another one in Kenosha the following winter. And that summed up her CV before she walked into the Ann Nathan Gallery one Friday a year and a half ago.

Nathan hadn’t accepted work from an artist who walked in off the street for so long she can’t remember another time it happened, though she says she’s sure there have been others. If artists, even “outsider” artists, want to get in the door, they send a resume with slides or a CD and a cover letter.

Crump didn’t crack the selective River North scene entirely without a plan. She’d phoned a gallery there and spoken to a woman who advised her to visit the area and see which places displayed work similar to hers. Crump loaded up her black portfolio and, because she doesn’t drive, asked her sister Camille to take her down to the city from her home in North Chicago.

Now 30 and living in Zion, Crump’s gotten plenty of encouragement throughout her life–from friends, from her mother, from her seven sisters, even, belatedly, from her uncle Paul Collins, an artist who unwittingly motivated her when she was a child. (“We don’t need another artist in the family,” she overheard him tell her mother.) But she’d struggled with the idea of showing her drawings and paintings in public. “To me it was kind of like a diary,” she says. “It was personal.”

And her personal life hadn’t been easy. She’d grown up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she became a mother at 17. She didn’t marry the father of her child. Instead, she got involved with an abusive man who she says posed a danger to her loved ones: “He was threatening my family. I had to leave, and my family left with me.” In 1995 she and her son, along with her mother and six of her sisters, moved to Kansas City, Missouri. “It’s hard starting over and watching your back all the time,” she says.

After leaving Grand Rapids, she tried without luck to locate her child’s father. In 2001 she learned from an attorney that he’d been killed in Mississippi during a robbery in 1998. Crump says she was devastated, “completely a wreck.”

But while living in hiding Crump came to believe it was wrong for her to hide her work away. “It felt kind of selfish,” she says. “I’m not saying that everyone’s going to enjoy my work, but to whoever does, it’s not fair for me to just have a big stack of pictures and keep ’em. For what? I mean, we’re not here forever.” The possibility of making a living from art was also appealing. “That’s one of the big parts,” she says, laughing.

After looking in the windows of a couple of galleries, Crump was drawn into the Gwenda Jay/Addington Gallery on Wells. She gathered her nerve and spoke to the man behind the desk, who happened to be one of the owners.

An artist himself, Dan Addington says, “I know what it feels like on the other side of the desk.” So when an artist walks into his place, he’ll usually look at the work. At first Addington advised Crump to approach galleries in the usual way. But, she recalls, “after he saw my work he said, ‘No, actually, you might just want to go ahead and take your work into a gallery and just show ’em.'” Ann Nathan was one of a few he specifically recommended.

Crump and her sister walked around the corner to Superior and into Ann Nathan, where a gray-haired woman with glasses asked if they needed help. “I asked her if she knew the director, and she said, ‘Well, something like that,'” says Crump. “I didn’t know that was Ann Nathan.” After Nathan agreed to take a look at her work, Crump asked her sister to go get her portfolio from the car. “I was so nervous I was shaking,” she says.

“She floated in with a big portfolio,” says Nathan, “and she showed me her work.” Crump covers a range of styles, from ornate line drawings reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley to hazy gouaches to realistic portraits. But Nathan says that almost all the figures portrayed are aspects of the artist: “I don’t know where she gets her material or her thoughts on what to paint and how, but the imagery is all the ways she projects herself in different situations: slim, pregnant, different hairstyles. And it’s all very natural, nothing contrived.”

Crump wasn’t the featured artist at her first gallery show in September 2002, but her work sold well. Since then she’s sold ten pieces at prices ranging from $300 to $1,500. (Through Nathan, she also exhibited at an Intuit show of outsider art in 2003, where she had no luck.) “Ann Nathan said you can’t really start too high when you’re not known. I was fine with that,” she says. “Before, I was just holding on to it for myself and not getting anywhere.” Still, after the gallery takes its 50 percent, and figuring in the cost of supplies, Crump says she isn’t making much. She makes ends meet by looking after two families’ children.

In the basement studio of her apartment, Crump’s recent work is stacked in a small pile next to a drop cloth. Nearby she’s got a glass with scissors and brushes and a trayful of acrylic paints. All her new stuff is on paper torn from sketch pads. The latest is a stark black-and-white ink drawing of several naked women who look like they could all be the same person, arrayed in various poses on a set of monkey bars. “It’s about people climbing to the top,” she says, “and how some are willing to step on others and others are just willing to lie down. And some are at the top trying to pull others up.”

The picture just under it has been partially washed out and painted over. “Oh, I’ve got no paper,” Crump explains. “I can’t afford to buy it right now. So I recycle.”

Career Planners

On a related note: Next Thursday, February 5, local gallery directors Susan Aurinko, Ann Boyd, and Byron Roche will hold a panel discussion on “successful strategies and realistic expectations” for visual artists interested in showing at galleries. “Pssst…The Secrets of Commercial Representation” starts at 6 PM at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.