Smile Politely

Exploring the work of Allen Stringfellow across campus and community spaces

The fact that Allen Stringfellow’s work is currently exhibited at two C-U locations is not just a boon for fans of his bold collages. It also speaks to the significance of place in his life and in his work. These last few months Stringfellow’s work has been situated in both the community/social justice sphere (the University YMCA’s Murphy Gallery) and in the academic sphere (at Krannert Art Museum). And from what I’ve learned about the artist, this is just as it should be. 

The son of a Chicago jazz musician and nightclub manager, Stringfellow was raised by his grandmother in Champaign, where he became part of the local church community. Visits to his father introduced him to the jazz music and to culture at the Club De Lisa, “a jazz nightclub on the South Side that was inclusive of non-binary and queer performers and patrons and was one of the only clubs in the city where Blacks were allowed to sit.”

Displaying a gift for art an early age, Stringfellow studied at the University of Illinois, and later, at Milwaukee’s Art Institute. He went on to teach print techniques at the South Side Community Arts Center as part of the National Youth Administration program. A fixture in the Chicago art scene, Stringfellow opened and ran ahis own gallery in the 1960s. Hs work has been shown at the Chicago Historical Society, the DuSable Museum of African American History, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Until his death in 2004, he could be found in his signature red outfits. 

According to a 2021 Chicago Reader profile, Stringfellow had said “I wanted to be an artist without a clenched fist in the air,” Stringfellow says. “I thought being a black artist would be labeling myself, and besides, I was never mad.” Curator Katie Koca Polite of Krannert Art Museum attributed Stringfellow’s combined use of collage and watercolor to his understanding that “the fullness and complexity of the African American experience could not be adequately captured in one medium.”

The two recent Champaign exhibitions can easily be seen one after the other, or, as I did, in two consecutive days. Beginning at Uncle Allen: Works By Allen Stringfellow From The Family Collection at the University YMCA’s Murphy Gallery, is to see Stringfellow’s work through the lens of family. The exhibit’s signature image, detail seen below, is displayed beside a selection of clippings, photos, and opening reception programs.

Close-up of piece from Allen Stringfellow's Jazz Series at the University YMCA's Murphy Gallery.

Photo by Debra Domal.

This eclectic collection spans mediums and themes, even including several large paintings and a quilt made to resemble Stringfellow’s religious themed work, You Must Be Born Of Water. The charm of the unmatched frames evokes the feeling that these selected works have been lovingly chosen for this purpose and inspires one to wonder where they were came from. What kind of spaces had they been in? What kind of gatherings took place there? One thing is clear: these pieces are deeply cherished. 

Homemade collage of photos, clippings, and programs from Stringfellow's art openings.

Photo by Debra Domal.

Jazz does not only figure as a setting or theme here. It is also an applied technique, carrying the sense of a band’s back and response, back and forth, as it moves through different palettes, mediums, and styles. The program notes tell us that Stringfellow “worked to break down barriers of all kinds, and while acknowledging life’s difficulties, his work reflects profound hopefulness and joy.” Here the groups of figures are foregrounded, centering the rhythm and vibrancy of Black music is centered.

But there is more to it than that. Sherman Edmiston Jr, owner of Harlem’s Essie Green Galleries, once drew an important distinction between Stringfellow’s work and that of his postwar contemporaries.“Allen depicts the life of the Black middle class, a reality that tends to go unnoticed among his peers. [Allen’s work is] warmer and more uplifting.”

Over at Krannert Art Museum, Vibrant Lives: Allen Stringfellow is a more compact exhibit with the focus on collage and papier mache sculpture. Though Its size and location might suggest a quick look will do, Vibrant Lives deserves your time. Situated in the corridor between the old world and the new, there is much to consider both in terms of content and technique.

A wide view of collages and paper mache sculptures by Allen Stringfellow at Krannert Art Museum.

Photo by Debra Domal.

Experiencing Stringfellow’s work in an academic setting got to me thinking about Stringfellow’s place in history and among his peers. Sherman Edmiston Jr, owner of Harlem’s Essie Green Galleries, once drew an important distinction between Stringfellow’s work and that of his postwar contemporaries. “Allen depicts the life of the black middle class, a reality that tends to go unnoticed among his peers. [Allen’s woirk is] warmer and more uplifting.”

A close look at Street Smarts II (below) underscores Stringfellow’s signature combination of collage and watercolor. The clothing textures and cuts elevate the figures. Each unique choice fills that character with style and personality. As Edmiston Jr. observed, this is a portrait of joy and success. If you enjoy getting lost in the details like I do, you’ll find much to consider and admire. 

Photo by Debra Domal.

Exploring Allen Stringfellow’s work through these two lenses presents a unique opportuntiy. One I suggest you take advantage of while you can. In their own unique ways, each exhibition site overwhelms you with the loving care that created and curated these rich and joyous images of Black communities. 

Uncle Allen: Works By Allen Stringfellow From The Family Collection
Through August 1st
University YMCA
Murphy Gallery
1001 S Wright St
M-F: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Vibrant Lives: Allen Stringfellow
Through August 5th
Krannert Art Museum
500 E Peabody Ave
T-Sa: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Top photo by Debra Domal.

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