Duro Olowu, the print-mad fashion designer and curator, explores textiles as art (apart from garments or interiors) in a new exhibition that celebrates the work of Robert Earl Paige. Until now, the artist and activist has been something of an unsung hero, one who remains in constant pursuit of beauty. “Robert Earl Paige: Power to the People,” “gives flowers,” as it were, to the engaging and stylish artist who Olowu describes as being a work of art in himself.
Paige labels himself “a doodler, a tinker, and a dabbler” who is driven by curiosity and a sense of responsibility. “I tell everyone I’m gonna be around till 120, that’s the way,” says the artist on a call. “Who’s going to be left here to make sure all this S-H-I-T works? Someone has to be responsible for recording this and reporting on this, and I see that as part of my assignment. Everything I do I attribute it to an assignment that I have, that I need to explore, or to do, or to share.” Adds Olowu: “I think Robert sees his art as a job, he has fun doing it, but he takes it very seriously.”
Born in a segregated Chicago in 1936, Paige earned a degree in interior design from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, while working with architecture and interiors. Paige was part of the Black Arts Movement and the AfriCobra collective active in the city. He traveled to Italy to design patterns used in fashion. One of the results of an eye-opening trip to Senegal was his Dakkabar collection of home textiles, which was designed to celebrate Black heritage and speak directly to the Black customer. “African art is abstract and symbolic. It has the power to evoke strong emotions,” Paige told the New York Times when the collection was released in 1973.
Paige, who is best known for his textile designs, says in a press release that he sees his work sitting within the framework of “an African American tradition in decorative arts.” When Olowu visited Paige at home in Chicago, he discovered an “oasis of fantastic work… and I just thought Robert is an artist and he makes things in different mediums.” As such, ceramics, collages, paintings, textiles, and assemblages are all brought together in the exhibition, which is now on view at Jean Greenberg Rohatyn’s Salon 94 gallery in the Lower East Side. “I think perception is everything, but it’s up to both institutions and galleries to help guide perception,” says Olowu. “If you keep dividing, what you’re doing is depriving the viewer. With Robert’s work, whether it is a curtain in a slightly political fabric, a ceramic, or his fabric collages, it’s really about waking up and being conscious about constantly being stimulated for your own good. I think Robert’s work is very important because it reflects a lack of self-consciousness about status, and it reflects a lack of self-consciousness about how the work is seen.”
The wall facing the entry is hung with yards of fabric (printed limited editions of specific yardages) that draw one in and excite the eye. There’s the African continent, poppingly outlined in pink blue, purple, and framed in black on a warm brown ground; neighboring it is a kinetic geometric composition in black and white. The mood is upbeat and playful, the space is contagiously alive. The artist is very much present.
Here, some of Robert Earl Paige’s thoughts on making and meaning.
When did you discover art as your medium?
“I remember my mom would say, ‘Bobby, you can’t bring any more things in this house’—this is like five or six years old—she said, ‘Your top dresser drawer is full of stuff.’ I did not know I was associated with Robert Rauschenberg and ready-mades at that point. I’ve always been doodling. In our community, when I was coming up, it would be not uncommon to go down the street and see a car tire leaning up against the curb where a kid was making a game out of it. My upbringing was just a joyous time for me, I mean, we were swimming and just having a ball. It’s kind of hard to say what was the key thing that got me to hook onto this creative impulse or creative talent that I had developed. I tell kids all the time to get rid of the clutter, doubts and fears, because creativity takes courage and you have to understand how important it is that you stay on track. We’re all on this path; sometimes we fall off, but we get back on it and go.”
What role does the doodling you mentioned play in your work?
“The doodling comes from a Sarah Vaughan tune when she says, ‘Doodling is when your noodle’s flying blind.’ That’s really how I start all my design concepts. I was talking to a person at the opening who wanted to know about my process and my practice. And I’m saying that as an artist you can be doodling and then you will see something in that doodle. And you attach yourself to that doodling and that unconscious effort that you had will disappear, because now you’re conscious. They say, ‘What is your practice?’ My practice is my practice that I practice all the time.”
How did activism enter into your life and work?
The South Side had all these great institutions. We had music groups, and there was a place in the park called Boat House Square, where gentlemen from the Marcus Garvey era would come and talk about things, so we were always conscious of the idea of how to use art in an activist way. The idea of the red, black and green was always apparent in our communities, and we were just geeked up to participate in all the things that made you vital and gave you energy.”
How did your trip to Africa affect your work?
“Going to Senegal brought me back to the basic elements of things. In textiles there are stripes, there are plaids and geometrics and solids, but Africa brought me to a point to understand color in its simplistic form. In the Dakkabar collection I was exploring color; I think in some of the fabrics there are 13 or 14 colors. Since then I’ve been looking at how I can use those 14 colors and dissect them and use maybe three or four, because my patterns are so strong that you don’t need a lot of color in a lot of instances. Someone will look at my work with a lot of color and they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ then they’ll see three colors and they jump off the floor.
As I traveled around the United States with the collection people said, ‘Oh, the color! The color.’ And I said, ‘You need color!’ Think about my city, how Chicago is in the winter. To wake up and be jolted with this beautiful color on pillows or the drapes or whatever; that’s part of an aesthetic I think that we have in our community. You have to have color.
That experience opened my eyes not only to travel, but to the fact that there’s all these different things that can inspire you. I say inspiration only occurs when it finds you working. That’s part of what you need to be doing, following the work, and being curious; those are the things that I’ve hung my hat on.”
Why do you think textile arts encourage community?
“When I think about art and fine arts, this whole broo-ha-hah about this blurred area between fine arts and crafts…everybody’s a fabric user; it’s just easy and accessible. If you think about Gee’s Bend, the idea of quilting bees, people sitting around doing it, an activity that you can do without spending a lot of money on materials. I think it has a functional, novel, and beautiful aspect, and that’s the way that initially I felt about my work. Simplicity is its own best design. The idea of repurposing: Just give me 15 or 20 different objects and I’ll make something out of them because they’re kind of their own composition in themselves. I’ll take, you know, nine rocks and make a composition out of that and then add texture or color. But it’s all about imagination, and the idea that I’m constantly in pursuit of beauty.”
What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
“When I’m talking to students, I talk about the idea that you need to go back to the basic principles of design. You have to think about line, you have to think about color, you have to think about texture and shapes and volumes and rhythms and incorporate those in your composition. That’s as basic as you can get because the idea of art initially was to be beautiful. That’s why sometimes I have problems with conceptual art. I say that art is anything that you call art, but sometimes a design is an answer to a set of questions, and I come out of that practice, you know. I had been considering myself as a textile designer and hanging my hat on that book, when in fact I am an artist and one of my mediums happens to be textiles. In the show there are a lot of ceramic pieces from January to the present, and I was having great fun making them because I have been utilizing what I consider a philosophy of basic design components and elements.”
Is there something you hope people will take away from the exhibition?
“There were three ladies that were in this morning and when they went out the door, they said, ‘This is beautiful work.’ That’s something that warms my heart; that people are seeing it and they appreciate it, and they understand that this person is really trying to inspire a feeling of hope. You know this old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? I say that’s only true if you’re trained to see it, because people will walk around all day with these iPhones in their hands, and there are hummingbirds, sunflowers and peacocks—all kinds of beautiful things—to be observed.”
What do you think the function of beauty is in the world—or in your world?
“I say color is the skin of the world and God put flowers and things of beauty on the scene, so that you are aware of it. And in these troubled times, you need to be able to be uplifted. On my way to my atelier in the morning I’ve been recording the different color changes in some of the flowers. in the morning, the different color changes, in some of the flowers. You just need to become more aware and not be so depressed about things. You need to put a pause, or put a delete button on all the drama that’s going on. We’re just so fed up with this clutter in the mind. And when I think back to people that I have reverence for, like Paul Klee: I had this saying that the idea of a line is never ending, and then I find out because of my reverence for him, that he said, ‘A line is a dot that went for a walk.’ I mean, how can you not be excited about these things? But it takes investigation and the curiosity to hook onto things that bring some joy. There’s a difference between happiness and joy; you can be happy one day and sad the next, but joy is a constant. So I’m always joyful, trying to get people to smile.”