Medium Cool: Robert Paige Q&A

Textile artist Robert Paige speaks after the July 12, 2013 screening of Medium Cool (in which he appeared during the Black revolutionaries scene) at the Logan Center for the Arts, part of the “Revolution on Film” series.

Rebecca Zorach [RZ]: I have the great pleasure of introducing Robert Paige, who was one of the black militants in the black militant scene, [audience applause] and I’ll just say a few words.

He’s a renowned fiber artist and textile designer, with many connections to AfriCOBRA. He shared studio space with Wadsworth Jarrell, and he’s actually the one who gave the group the term ‘koolade colors.’ He studied at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, he’s travelled extensively in Europe and Africa researching designs and techniques, and his distinctive bright geometric patterns in his designs have appeared in many major retail stores here in Chicago and nationwide. So, it’s wonderful to have him here and to be able to have some of his reflections on the experience of being in the black militant scene in the film.

We had hoped that Barbara Jones-Hogu would also be able to be present: she was not able to at the last minute. But she sent me an email, and I thought I might just read a few words from that before posing an initial question to Mr. Paige. So, she says, “Thank you for the offer for me to say something about the film. It was my first introduction to be in a film of this importance. Everyone that appears in the apartment in the film had an opportunity to talk about their concerns of the civil rights movement and their experiences and analysis of that time, which was related to the riots that occurred after the death of Martin Luther King, and the social and emotional climate, thoughts, and feelings of that time, leading into the Democratic Convention. Much of that footage was cut, because the film took on a different development. Those who spoke were mostly artists—visual, musicians, actors, designers, etc. They were not members of the Black Panthers.” There’s a sort of impression that they may be, that I think a lot of people get from the film, although it’s not actually stated in the film, but I think some people have that impression. And then she goes on and says, “many controversial persons left the city in order to not experience any overt aggression toward them based on the fact that the Chicago Police Department was preparing strenuously for combat and aggressive actions against them.” So that was just a few words that she had to say. And I just wanted to start by asking you, do you remember how you got involved and what you knew about the film before you found yourself in that apartment?

Robert Paige [RP]: Yes, what happened was a group of us found out that Columbia College was having a conference down at the Chicago Dental Association on Chicago Avenue. So we met in a coffeeshop—when I say we met, Jeff Donaldson, myself, Muhal Richard Abrams, Bill and Sylvia Abernathy—and so we decided that we would go to this conference. And so the coffeeshop that we were in, it was closing, so then we left there and went over to Gwendolyn Brooks’ house, and we stayed up all night, maybe till 2 o’clock in the morning, and we decided that if we’re going to go and participate in this, that we should carry signs. And if you hold on a minute: [unfolds sign] This was one of the signs that we created.

Audience Member: Read it!

RP: And it says, “hands off black art!” And so when we got to the conference, we introduced ourselves and one—Anthony Braxton, he was another. Anthony Braxton is from the AACM, Richard Muhal’s from AACM, Jeff Donaldson and BJ and myself are visual artists. And so, at the end of the conference, we went to the washroom, Abernathy and I, and Abernathy knew Haskell Wexler, I didn’t know him, and so Abernathy was real militant and he says, “ah, there’s that m-f something something something” So, I say, well, let me go introduce myself. So I introduce myself to Haskell Wexler, and told him who I was and what I was and invited him to my atelier. So he came out to Hyde Park, so that’s actually how we were introduced to getting involved in the film. But once Jeff Donaldson, BJ and myself and Muhal, got there, then we saw all the rest of the performing arts community came. So that’s actually how we got involved in it.

RZ: So much of this film is about the sort of intertwining of fiction and reality, and I’m wondering about the sort of reality of that moment—how much did it feel like people were having a conversation, or speaking in a way that was, simply, kind of natural to speak? Or was it, okay: here’s an audience, let’s speak to this particular audience that we have in front of us at the moment? How much was acting and how much was real, I guess is my question.

RP: Yeah, that’s a very important point there, because as I said, when all four of us came, then we say Val Gray and the others, and they had lines! We didn’t. So I think that maybe they were hired to participate in it, and we just kind of fell into it.

RZ: But, I mean, Jeff Donaldson has a lot to say, right?

RP: Well, he always has a lot to say. [audience laughter] So when he was speaking… I think that was more impromptu. Yeah, but the other actors, because the lead—the brother that found the money, I don’t know if any of you guys know who that was: Sid McCoy. He was on radio and then left Chicago and then eventually went to California and got into acting and so forth. But I think a lot of it was scripted and most of it was improvisational. At least, my part was.

Michael W. Phillips JR. [MP]: Everyone in the apartment got a chance to talk; I was wondering if you remember what you said.

RP: Well, I was kind of the Alfred Hitchcock in the movie. If you can flashback, I was sitting on the sofa next to BJ, and at one point early on, I went over and whispered some words into Jeff Donaldson’s ear, and that was it. I wanted to get in on the action.

RZ: For people who don’t know, Jeff Donaldson was the one who answered the door. The tall guy who answers the door and at the beginning kind of repeats everything that the cameraman is saying.

Audience Member: I think it’s a very—I’m not quite sure if interesting is the best word—but a number of those people who were in the movie are all deceased now! Jeff Donaldson, you mentioned Sylvia, well, Abernathy is dead, Walter Bradford, who else…but I just think it’s kind of ironic in a way, you come to a movie and you see this room full of people and you know they’re artists and other things, and then when you think about it, if you know them, you know, my goodness. When was the movie made?

RP: ’68.

Audience Member: In ’68, so it was made right during that…so some of, a lot of that footage was real, then!

RP: Right, absolutely.

Audience Member: So, I mean, it’s just kind of chilling at a certain level, if you know the people and you see them in this, and then you reflect and say, my goodness. They’re all gone.

RP: Also to that point, when you see the exhibition downstairs and I guess last week they had a panel of Henderson and BJ and the Jarrells and, who else was on that… And I was kind of taken back, because I thought, and was hoping, that they would at least have, or even mentioned, some of the existing members. There’s Stevens, is on the scene, and there are a couple others, but yeah, I thought that that would have helped, tied it all together. But you say: Jeff Donaldson, I was at his memorial, and Murry dePillars is no longer on the scene, I was at his memorial. It’s kind of frightening, as Barbara said, that it seems like everyone who she’s mentioned and that I’ve mentioned, I’m on a photograph with them. And I collect, of course, all the announcements and articles about my dear colleagues. And you talk about ironic—it’s ironic that I’m on pictures with all of them.

RZ: I might want to make a pitch for the DuSable exhibition which is going to—and Artie [Arlene Turner Crawford] is sitting up in the front, second row back—just to say that that exhibition will deal with some of the current members as well as the founding members who are no longer part of the group. But yeah, it sort of brings us up, not necessarily to the present, but further into the history of AfriCOBRA.

Audience Member: I’m just curious about how, when the film was finally released, if your family or friends went to view it, and if it had any impact on your life at that time.

RP: Well, it’s interesting. I left Chicago and moved to Detroit in ’91. I didn’t get back to Chicago till ’96, and shortly after I arrived, well, I was artist in residence, of all places, in Cabrini-Green. And there’s the Biograph Theater up on Sedgwick or somewhere up there, but anyway, I saw an ad in the paper where Medium Cool was going to be shown and Haskell Wexler was going to be in town. So, I went to the movie of course, talked to him, and at the end of the movie, Ted Koppel was on television at that time, and he interviewed him and myself, but that was the only time that I actually got a chance to see the film other than tonight. I don’t know if any of the other members got a copy. At that time, at the Biograph Theater, Haskell Wexler sent me a nice letter and a copy of the film, which I was then able to show Richard Muhal Abrams, who is a part of AACM and lives in New York. I just returned from New York back to Chicago three years ago.

Audience Member: Hello! That was a wonderful film. I wanna present a different aspect of it, because I was, like, there! So, reminisces: the National Guard, the armored vehicles came from Chicago Avenue, the soldiers had had the crosses on their arms. I was there when they were practicing at Camp McCoy, practicing how they were going to treat the rebels, so to speak, the people that they knew were coming. And before the mayor had put out that Shoot to Kill warning, all of those things that happened on screen were in the daytime. At night, the soldiers from the 52nd street armory were the ones that went to the West Side, where they were shooting on 16th street. I hardly see any of those guys there, they came from the 178th infantry, and they were riding in Jeeps with machine guns on them and it was…I mean, I was right there. I recognize everything. And I know where the riot first started: it was behind the bandshell. Okay, they showed the bandshell, when they knocked-over all the chairs, that’s when they took all the chairs away from the bandshell but then all the benches were left, were gone from there, and then from that point on it was just a bandshell, and they had to bring chairs in. But the riot started over where the statue was, behind that, just south of the Conrad Hilton. And it was so reminiscent, like I was being there…

Audience Member: Hi. I was around when AfriCOBRA was formed, and I wasn’t aware of this movie—of course, I was pretty young in ’68—but two questions: why did it change from COBRA to AfriCOBRA when they got to the East Coast, and what impact would you say this film had upon the group?

RP: Other than the formation of the organization, I don’t think it had any effect on it. As I said, when it was formed as COBRA in Chicago, we did—I didn’t say, but we did—get an opportunity, or had the group come out to the Affro-Arts Theatre, Phil Cohran’s theatre, on Oakwood Boulevard. So we did make that kind of an impact on an organization that was only supposed to come here and visit only white not-for-profit organizations. That’s what really kind of put a cramp in our butts, that they were going to come to Chicago and were not going to come to the South Side or to the black community to look at our not-for-profits. Because at that point, we had a lot of things happening in Chicago. Like I said, there was a [Teesta] Shop on 75th street, the Ellis’s had their bookstore on 64th and Cottage Grove, and [Ad-Fam], there was a lot of shit happening—excuse me—I mean, when you look around now, there ain’t nothing happening. I

mean…I’m sorry! [moderators laugh] The Logan Center, the DuSable Museum, the South Side Community Arts Center, I mean, but there were a lot of things going on at that point.

RZ: Maybe I could ask you to elaborate on something you said a moment ago, about the difference between those days and now, and if you see any, if you have any thoughts about. You suggested that there’s less going on now than at that time. Is there a reason for that, or are there things that you can point to, that are kind of important things that are happening now, or directions that people could take?

RP: Okay, as I said, I left Chicago and moved to Detroit in ’91, and would come back and forth. Then, actually, Dr. Carol Adams brought me back to be artist-in-residence in Cabrini-Green, and I saw, I mean, I saw devastation in my community—I’d ride down King Drive and saw just vacant lots and vacant lots. And I just felt that there was not enough attention, or pressure on the powers-that-be, to try to either put some money in the community to rehabilitate a lot of the homes or try to get any kind of activities. When I grew up, I grew up at 61st and Langley. I used to skate in the Midway, before the skating rink, I used to skate from Ellis all the way to Woodlawn! And I mean, and hide from my mother and father at the Fountain of Time, right at the top part! And fish in the lagoon and they used to have music up on Seven Hills, and they had boats and things. So, tell me! I had a wonderful childhood, in terms of, I went to [?] Sexton School. The Davises, Allison Davis, [?] Davis, Dr. Davis, from the University of Chicago, used to take me fishing, he lived across the street on Langley. You know, excuse me, I keep using this s-h-i- but it keeps going down, down, down!

Audience Member: Bob, what do you think was part of the movement of artists out of the city, around ’70? So many people left town. What do you think about that, and what is the effect of that on Chicago now? I mean, the whole: AACM, and Jeff, and Murry and so many people left town. What do you think about that?

RP: I don’t really know. I remember hearing Jesse Jackson—I had a carriage house right behind PUSH, and in a conversation, it was kinda like across the fence—and he made a statement, I don’t know if I understand what it means, but I’ll repeat what he said. He said, “it’s something about Chicago,” and he was talking about himself and he was talking about, of all people, Mr. T, and he says, “it’s something about Chicago, when they see your drawers, then they don’t want anything to have to do with you.” Now, I’ll speed forward, and when I lived in Detroit, I was more respected from living in Detroit, coming back to Chicago and doing things, than I did when I was here. And when I was in New York City—I was in there for ten years—and I was able to while I was there, get an opportunity to spend three months in South Africa, with [the N.W.?] Foundation. I was able to develop a line of fabrics for Kmart that sold in 2,000 stores. And these are things that don’t happen here. You can see why it doesn’t happen here as opposed to a place like New York City, where everything is happening, but to your point I think that everyone feels that Chicago is a wasteland in terms of visual and performing artists, and they want to take that opportunity to try to further their careers. And so they move. And in some cases it works out and in some cases it doesn’t.

Jacqueline Bradford: Good evening everyone. My name is Jacqueline Bradford, I’m Walter Bradford’s daughter. Can I just appreciate the opportunity to see my father and be around all these wonderful people who knew him, and did so much for our community. But I wanted to ask about OBAC. And if OBAC in some way was the catalyst for AfriCOBRA.

RP: Probably so. I wasn’t around OBAC—Dr. Adams left, she was in the audience, she’s no longer in the audience now but she could probably talk to that point.

MP: And, just to clarify: Dr. Adams is getting an award from ASE, the Chicago African Storytellers Association, this evening, so she was here briefly and then went to the south end of the Logan Center to get the award. So I’m sure she would have loved to stay the whole time, but she’s bouncing between the two!

Audience Member: Most people know OBAC from Haki and the Writer’s Workshop, and Gwen, but when OBAC started out in the Urban Progress Center over in Englewood, OBAC had many facets. It had writers, it had dance—which I was part of—it had photography which Bobby Sengstacke, and Onikwa and [?], Edward Christmas and all of those people. It had painters, it had jewelry makers, it had all of those different facets, but finally OBAC and the visual arts put up the Wall of Respect. And then what happened as, I think, what you were talking about, Bob, is that a prophet in his own land, that thing. People, as you said, they, “I don’t know, man, who does he think he is,” so you had to go somewhere else to get some recognition and make a living and further your career. And people when they got recognized because Chicago was the nucleus of the African-centric, and still has a whole lot of it going on, people were asked to come. It didn’t just people run away, people were asked! Like, ooo-ee, somebody wants me! And people don’t just think of me as just that person that hangs around their backyard! And that’s what happened to Organization of Black American Culture, OBAC, it was all inclusive of all the arts.

Aki Antonia: I just wanted to say, my name is Aki Antonia and I write a blog called the Bronzeville Arts Blog. Having been growing up around the black artists movement, and the musical movement—I’m also a musician—I’ve seen the evolution of what happened in response to what you were saying. When AfriCOBRA moved to New York, there were still a lot of viable organizations like the Black Artist Guild, which was founded by Turtel, artist Turtel Onli. They had a lot of artists from the Art Institute.


Aki Antonia: Also called BAG. They had a number of artists like Dalton Brown, Kenneth Hunter, Espi Eph, and they had a very viable relationship with the South Side Community Arts Center, which has always stayed viable. And Turtel went on to create something called the Black Age of Comics, which is still very much a part of where many illustrators and artists are today. The DuSable Museum began to evolve, and include many of the artists work who had come from the 70’s to that time period. The African Fest emerged, Jazz in the Alley was the evolution out of AACM—there were still a lot of very strong AACM members in Chicago in the 70s, 80s, 90s. Muntu Dance Theatre under the beginnings of Alyo Tolbert, came out of Hyde Park mixed with a lot of the different jewelry makers and artists, and there were art fairs. It was still a very vibrant community that evolved through the 70s and 80s and 90s. I know, ‘cause I participated. And then we had our Jazz festival downtown, South Shore Jazz Fest, and then we had Transitions East, we’ve had all kinds of different clubs, NTU. So, it was still a very viable community that grew and is still vibrant today, but you have to find the pockets. A lot of people have passed. A lot of people went mainstream, so to speak, and a lot of people did move around. But we still have a very thriving community, arts community in general, and you still see evidence. Like the Hyde Park Jazz Fest, we’ve watched that evolve from one place to where it is now.

RP: That’s all very true, but at the point that I’m talking about, and I think someone else may have mentioned: there were things happening…AACM had scattered sites every week. The Hyde Park Art society is a whole ‘nother ballgame, you know. Turtel and BAG, BAG’s Espi Eph, who you spoke to, they had keys to my silkscreen studio when I lived behind PUSH and they learned screen print in there; I’m talking about things of that nature. Of course there are things, but the sister said that people brought some of the musicians, and some of the visual artists to Chicago, that’s true. But in most part, the adventurous attitude and the need for exposure lead you somewhere else.

My first trip to Milano, Italy in 1964, speaking no Italian whatsoever but knowing that that sky goes all over the world, no reason for me only to see it here in Chicago, got me on an airplane to go. To sell textiles in Milano. So, things are happening, but when you look at a big picture, there were things happening more, at a point, then now, even though things are still happening. I’m not that one, like I tell my students: in order to lead the orchestra you have to turn your back on the crowd. So sometimes you have to flip, you have to get up and get away. It’s alright, see. I’m a Jazz cat, I know all the cats. And when I get a little crazy in the head from doing my work, I go and hear some music or call some of my music friends. ‘Cause this is a solitary thing, that these visual artists do. But if it’s happening, it’s happening, but I would say it is too loose for me.

See, I’m a fine artist in a commercial body. I had trouble. I guess I found out later on that was one of the problems that Jeff had with me—and I didn’t know he had it—was that I was thinking about the commercial aspect and interested very much in building a bridge for young aspiring artists to cross. And still we’re doing that. That’s how Turtel and them, I gave Turtel, BAG—and their logo was a busted watermelon with red, black, and green—keys to use my studio! And I worked with, of course, my dear friend, no longer with us, Maggie Daley, in Gallery 37. So I’ve always been interested in who’s gonna be responsible for building that bridge for these young kids? They don’t have a clue of what’s going on.

Alice Singleton: Hi, my name is Alice Singleton. I’m actually the niece of Jeff Donaldson. To your point, you’re talking about why we’re not reaching out to young kids and old kids like me—and I can tell you what my experience is in Chicago. In 1968—’68, ’70, you tell me—my uncle owned an African art store called Sticks and Stones, right over on 87th and Cottage Grove.

RP: Okay, but first it was in Harper Court.

Alice Singleton: Okay, so, I’m 7 or 8 years old, I don’t remember the to Harper Court. I remember going to 87th street. Now, I’m going to tell you what else I see, and I continue to see— and I’m not even frustrated by it anymore, but I’ve accepted that this is the reality—I keep hearing everybody talking about Bronzeville and Hyde Park and Hyde Park and Bronzeville and you know what? I live in Rogers Park! And I’ve lived on the north side of Chicago since 1978. I moved on the north side of Chicago when I was less than 18 and a half years old and I ain’t got no intention of coming back.

But what I will tell you is there are a ton of black people on the northwest side of Chicago and on the north, and I’ve lived in Logan Square, I’ve lived in Bucktown. Rogers Park, Edgewater. Tons of black people! To quote Redd Foxx, “Enough black people to make a Tarzan movie!” And then there are the Hispanic people that live there, the Latinos, the Mexicans and the Puerto Ricans and the Dominicans. And then there are the Asian, Indigenous populations. Oh, and the black people who live in Gresham. And in Chicago Lawn. And if you can’t pull your heads out your ass and come out of Hyde Park and Bronzeville and reach out to these people and if they have to keep just getting on the bus to find you, then you’re dead. This doesn’t exist. You’re dead!

As for the commercialization of art, well, you know what? If it hadn’t of been for Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin—I’m a huge metalhead—so if it hadn’t of been for Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin, and Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, the blues would be dead, if they had to depend on us. So if you wanna reach these people that you think you should reach, including the poor white people, or the white people who are now going back to poor—they had it good for about twenty years, they fattened them up for the kill—you wanna reach all these people? You need to come out of the University of Chicago for a minute. You need to come out of Bronzeville for a minute. And you need to reach them. You cannot get—the Chicago Defender is now, for the most part, dead, because they wouldn’t sell a paper past 35th street. They didn’t want to do it. They wouldn’t even go sell a paper on the west side.

And there are millions of black people in this city, and millions of children and old children who don’t have Dr. before their name and PhD after it, who aren’t being reached by what you claim is an important message. And I say ‘claim,’ because if it was that important, you’d be getting it out to them. And you’re not doing it. And it hasn’t been done, and it was never done. At some point it stopped. I don’t know why, I don’t really care why anymore.

I do agree with your point, and I think it goes way beyond art in terms of, you have to go someplace else to be important to Chicago. I had a friend who is a software developer, he couldn’t get anything going on in Chicago; he’s white, All-American kid, he moved to Houston, then he moved to Milwaukee, then he sold his company three years ago for $250 million. Couldn’t get anything going in Chicago. This is the way Chicago is. Maybe I’m channeling the ghost of my uncle—who was an atheist, so I don’t know what I’m channeling, maybe I got gas—but as he would say, “Chicago is just a big plantation.”

And a lot of us are comfortable in participating in those plantations, and we’re getting—and I don’t mind saying it, if I’m not invited ever back here again—but I was thinking about it the other day: here is a school that has a hospital, and a hospital that does not have a trauma center. My daughter, one of her good friends, the only reason why she was allowed to come to this trauma center—Hadiya Pendleton, when she was shot in January—was because she was under 18. And so millions of people are transported away from this hospital, but this school and this hospital included have received billions upon billions upon billions upon billions of dollars every single goddamn year, and everybody sits around comfortable. So when we talk about the comfortability of these upper middle class white folks in Naperville? We ain’t no better either!

So you wanna reach these kids? They’re in Gresham. They’re in Rogers Park. Yeah, they’re all over. And if you wanna reach them, they’re children, you’re not: get up and go figure out how you’re gonna reach them. Make a plan—and I’m not talking to you, I think you get it—but make a plan to go reach them. If you don’t want to reach them, then shut up complaining about that this thing is dying, because you know what? Then you’re passé and you should die. You serve no purpose.

RZ: I do want to say that one of the protestors who was arrested at the hospital was actually here tonight. So there is activism that continues with regards to the University of Chicago Hospital. And I think that that call to responsibility is a really important one. I think we’re running out of time, but I’m happy to close with any words that you might have in response.

RP: I think it’s all happened.

RZ: All right! Well, thank you all very much.

Philemon Najeib: Can I get one question in to our guest please? My name is Philemon Najeib, and I heard a lot of names here, today, bandied around. Some that I didn’t hear, that I’m sure are on our distinguished guest’s mind: Harold Okoro Johnson, one of the cofounders of ETA, and Mr. Jim Taylor, who established the Community Film Workshop of Chicago, one of six.

RP: Jim Taylor?

Philemon Najeib: Yes, sir, J.T. as we affectionately knew him. And I just wanted to thank you for coming forth. Chicago, I don’t think a lot of you realize, it is second city no more. So, when we talk about people leaving Chicago for greener pastures, there’s also the reverse of that. Sort of like families leaving and going back down to Mississippi. So there are people now coming from the East and the West, and the Midwest, to Chicago because it’s beginning to turn into quite a media town. And I just wanted to share that and thank you, sir, very much.