Oak Parker unveils Gwendolyn Brooks statue

Sculptor Margot McMahon's work honors poet's centennial

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By Nona Tepper

An Oak Park artist recently completed a statue of celebrated poet Gwendolyn Brooks, just in time for the centennial of the late Pulitzer Prize-winner, longtime state poet laureate and poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. The statue of Brooks may be only the third statue dedicated to a woman in the city. 

Margot McMahon, a board member of the Oak Park Area Arts Council and a founding commissioner on the Oak Park Public Art Advisory Commission, crafted the bust as part of "Our Miss Brooks 100", a series of events that took place throughout 2017 to commemorate the late poet's 100th birthday. The installation is designed to "both educate and invite public interaction" with Brooks' life and work — both of which have been underappreciated by the wider public, McMahon told Wednesday Journal in April. 

Officials unveiled the new statue — titled, "Gwendolyn Brooks: The Oracle of Bronzeville" — at the North Kenwood park that bears her name on June 7. 

"The Our Miss Brooks 100 planning committee wanted everyone in Chicago to know that Brooks was the first black Pulitzer Prize-winning poet," McMahon told Wednesday Journal. "She was the Illinois poet laureate. I would talk to a lot of people who would say, 'I know that name, but what does she do again?'" 

McMahon partnered with students at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park, along with various Chicago literary organizations, to raise more than $4,800 to build the bronze portrait.

There is no official list, but the statue of Brooks is likely only the third statue of a woman of historical import in Chicago, and only the second bust of an African-American woman in the city. 

A bust of Georgiana Rose Simpson, who was the first black woman to earn a doctorate from the University of Chicago, was unveiled last year at the university's student center. A statue of Justice Laura Liu, the first Chinese-American to serve on the Illinois Appellate Court, was also unveiled at Ping Tom Memorial Park near Chinatown in April 2017. 

In Chicago, there are roughly 40 statues dedicated to historic men, but perhaps just these three of women, according to "She Should Be Here," a report on WBEZ. The radio station partially attributes the lack of historic female statues to the fact that, by the time the city started to honor women in public spaces, erecting full-size statues had gone out of style. 

"So there are some plaques and benches dedicated to women and a few statues of fictional female characters, like Dorothy [from Wizard of Oz], but not much else," WBEZ noted. 

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com 

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