A study in researching the work of under-examined artists
There is still not enough art historical scholarship about artists of color. Any contemporary cultural critic or art history professor will tell you this. Marta Moreno Vega has made it her life’s work to address these inequities. Black studies scholar Deborah Willis has also led the way to amplify resources for critical thought around Black art by creating the Center for Black Visual Culture. And professor of art history at UCLA Steven Nelson has also outlined why he believes there are so few Black art history professors. If you’d like to learn more about the conversations around this blind spot you can also follow the hashtag #POCArtHistory on Twitter.
In lieu of this issue, I’ve found researching understudied artists is often frustrating as it takes time, finesse, and creativity to find buried information. Research becomes a web of interconnected sources, some with dead ends, some with unreputable information, and others that can finally lead you to treasure troves of photos, writings, and other media. But if anyone loves a research challenge, it’s a reference librarian! I wanted to share a small research project I gave myself to find quality photos and vintage articles of an understudied African American sculptor named Geraldine McCullough.
I found Geraldine McCullough’s name through a page from the African Studies Center on the University of Pennsylvania’s site that listed events in Black history. The page said she won the Widener Gold Medal for Sculpture on February 3, 1965. I was intrigued and wanted to see her work and learn more about her art and life.
My first inclination was to do a general search for her name to see if SVA had any books, DVDs or articles about her. At this point, you may think -- “Well I just did a Google Search and a bunch of things came up!” Don’t worry I’ll get there. But my first goal here was to find high quality, primary source material in-house if possible.
The results of a SVA Library One Search yielded 13 results with only two of them being relevant to Mrs. McCullough. One was an article in a 2000 issue of Jet magazine, which we don’t have access to read through our databases. The other was a 1998 article in American Art Review, a publication we have physical copies of at SVA’s archives. I looked at this article but it only briefly mentioned her and there were no photos of her work.
I then consulted our reference collection and went to the Benezit Dictionary of Artists which is quite extensive, but she wasn’t listed. However there was an entry on her in the anthology of American Women Sculptors by Charlotte Streifer Rubenstein under the section ‘The Triumph of Abstraction.’ This was helpful and discussed several of her works in Chicago.
I still didn't have photos so I started searching for the Jet Magazine article and found that Jet Magazine and Ebony Magazine’s archives are all fully available online! This is a great resource because as you can see these popular periodicals filled gaps about Black artists that art historical publications ignored. The more recent Jet Magazine article from April 3, 2000 talked about McCullough's winning of the Randall Shapiro award and talked about her inclusion in the Smithsonian’s show Three Generations of African American Women Sculptors which was not well documented by the Smithsonian but the LA Times wrote a nice review you can see here, and a few institutions like NYPL, The New School, Frick and MOMA have the catalogue.
“McCullough works in a variety of sheet metals. Her recent lion-size "Echo 5" has a pagan decorative abandon that somehow combines the opulence of pre-Columbia with the spiritual power of historic Africa. The piece creates the aura of a lush crouching Maya goddess that is mutating simultaneously into woman, antelope, Pterodactyl and Yoruban deity. It is in the very best sense an act of back-to-the-future science fiction.” says Williams Wilson from the LA Times.
At this point I still didn’t have quality photos of her work, so I did a Google image search for her and found a local Chicago newspaper article Work of Legendary Sculptress, Former Maywoodian Geraldine McCullough Resurrected in Chicago that cited and included screenshots from a 1964 Ebony Magazine article. I went directly to the source, the Ebony Magazine archive and found my content! Without the thorough work of reporter Michael Romain and his curiosity to include screenshots from his research, I probably wouldn’t have landed here. I also learned that she won the sculpture prize in 1964 not 1965 like the original article noted.
In the end the most dynamic art historical information about sculptor Geraldine McCullough came from an Ebony Magazine article linked by a staff reporter of a local newspaper. These histories should not be this difficult to access, but hopefully librarians, archivists, and academics like Deborah Willis will continue to provide avenues and resources that attempt to close the gap. To grow the scholarship around POC artists, we also need people to write about them and that includes SVA students! Reference librarians are here to help you find information about any obscure artist or resource. It’s part of the librarian ethos.
All images from the article Gold Medal for Talent: Sculptress Geraldine McCullough Talks about her Work in Ebony Magazine June 1964.