There will be a moment during the first induction ceremony in which Saul Bellow’s son Greg will take the Northeastern Illinois University’s Auditorium stage. The presenter, Jan Schwarz, will hand him a sculpture, and that sculpture will be the symbol of his father’s life’s work—his contributions to Chicago, to our cultural heritage, to literature in the bigger sense of the word.
Variations of that moment will be repeated five times: for Gwendolyn Brooks’ daughter Nora Brooks Blakely; for Richard Wright’s grandniece Dana Smith; for Lorraine Hansberry’s sister Mamie and grandniece Taye; for Studs Terkel’s son Dan Terkell; and for Nelson Algren’s old pal Art Shay.
Big moments, all of them.
By nature, any symbol is a pale representation, but pale, is, of course, the opposite of what we’re going for. We want those moments to be vibrant, celebratory…meaningful.
My first impression of Margot McMahon’s sculptures was life. Like all great art, her three-dimensional representations give more than illusion—they allow the viewer to enter into the world of the subject, suspending the knowledge that this is plaster or clay or bronze and seeing not only what’s there but what’s not. Her sculptures suggest motion.
There’s hardly an artist better suited to creating our statue, and the fact that Margot has taken on this project will help make that moment special.
“I’m treating this award as a sculpture,” says Margot. “I want this to have a contemporary look, an active look. The gesture of the hand captured in the sculpture is in a thoughtful pause, the most active part of writing that gets us to the idea. The idea is what the writer is about, and the idea is what the reader is about.”
Like Just Plain Hard Working, Margot’s standing exhibit at DePaul University, the hand at work is the central image of this sculpture. “When my subject took up the tool of their trade, their hands and minds became more alive,” explains Margot.
In this case, the hand holds a quill pen, which is not such an obvious choice as it might seem. Few writers any longer work in ink. The holdouts banging away at typewriters or scratching out sentences on paper are near-extinct, and almost all writers have warmed to word processing, if not tweeting.
Does the quill pen, then, become an obsolete symbol?
“Putting words on the page is timeless,” says Margot. “It doesn’t matter what instrument you’re using. Going back to the hand holding a feather filled with octopus ink gives it this ageless quality of sharing an idea, the essence of writing.”
Margot begins with an aluminum and wire armature. It bends, but also holds its shape. She wraps a sixteenth-inch aluminum wire around a quarter-inch aluminum wire to create texture for the clay to cling. Once the armature captures the essence of what the sculpture will say, Margot begins modeling in clay. Later, this malleable material will be translated into a permanent material through the mold making and casting in resin.
By lucky coincidence, I live on the same street as Margot, about five blocks south of her in Oak Park, she on one side of Madison Street, me on the other. My son Dusty lights up whenever we pass or visit Margot’s house. Her 10-foot high cobalt and sage green metal sculpture called Ecosystem No 1 invites the viewer to contribute water to a blue vessel in which a solar pump raises the water to a wind-powered weather vane that distributes the water on a rooftop garden. The idea is that people, wind and sun collaborate to make the garden flourish. (http://www.artloopopen.com/artists/margot-mcmahon). Dusty loves Margot’s studio even more. Through the backyard, past clucking chickens, around a lily-padded fish pond, past a mosaic table that my six-year-old wants to replicate, and over a three-foot wide organic garden with apples, strawberries, beans, herbs, pumpkins, acorn squash, peppers and tomatoes, is her work space. It is here that Margot thinks, then creates in clay, wood, metal and stone.
“I think there’s something very different about Chicago literary history,” Margot says. “Trains coming in, ships leaving full, and the screeching of the elevated trains defines our sounds and occupations. Think of The Jungle, V.I.Warshawski’s detective work or Devil in the White City: Chicago’s smell of slaughter and steel in the air is ever present. We’re not so far from that; we’re based on a sometimes brutal and industrial hard-working city. We have a big bulky bison feeling to us as a people cloaked against the winter’s cold. Writers who have that in the marrow of their bones will progress the literary history of the city.”
In addition to hands at work, another motif runs through Margot McMahon’s body of sculptural work: nature, or, more specifically, the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Chicago has such a heavily urban reputation, we often overlook its natural foundation and shape.
Margot has not.
In her sculpture, she includes a lotus blossom shape, which in Buddhism is the symbol of enlightenment. She calls the lotus a “negative space” in the sculpture, and sees it as an important link between the writer’s work and his environment.
“We are connected to our environment in a different way on our Third Coast,” says Margot. “It defines us by its temperamental body of fresh water, Lake Michigan; by the prairie of endless wind becoming farms with the best soil in the world; and urban woodlands and rivers. We are formed by these differently than any other ecosystem.”
My favorite Margot McMahon sculpture is probably Boy Gardener, at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. Looking at the sculpture causes me to vacillate between admiring the boy’s tranquility and reaching to understand the complexity of a life hidden behind that hoe.
Great writers, I think, create seamless narratives that make complex stories seem simple.
“Writers are at the forefront of cultural change,” Margot says. “That’s why I want the sculpture to have a contemporary as well as classic feel. As soon as people could carve the feather into a tube to hold ink, they were writing. Whether it’s Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson or the latest thing coming out in 2010, somebody’s idea is being put on paper to share with someone else. It comes from this thoughtful pause with the pen in the air as the idea takes shape in the writer’s mind.”