Forget Me NOT: Self-Taught Portraits

September 10 - December 31, 2010
Curated by Jan Petry

Painting on the left by Ammi Phillips of a young girl in a red dress with her dog juxtaposed with painting on the right by William Hawkins of a similar young girl in a red dress with a cat and two dogs

Since man began making marks, the portrait has remained a universal subject. From the meticulous detail of Ammi Phillips and Drossos Skyllas, the gestural swash of William Hawkins, the bold colors of Sam Doyle, to the simplicity of Paul Duhem, Forget Me NOT focused on our continued fascination with our own image. Featuring 49 artists, including C.J. Pyle, Ammi Phillips, Stephen Warde Anderson, Joe Coleman, Howard Finster, Morris Hirshfield, S.L. Jones, Lee Godie, Michelle Johnson, Elijah Pierce, William Matthew Prior, Pauline Simon and more, this exhibition showcased a variety of styles while presenting the unified theme of portraiture, portraying kings, movie stars, presidents, bad boys and good girls -- all reflecting who we are and how others see us.

Almost There: A Portrait of Peter Anton

July 9 - December 30, 2010
Curated by Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden

Photo of three male figures next to painted portrait of same three men

Peter Anton, a 78 year-old resident of East Chicago, Indiana, creates paintings that illuminate moments of significance from his personal history. Many of them are based on photographs he has obsessively compiled into a massive autobiography titled "Almost There."

Through the whole of twelve scrapbooks, Peter details his "life on a rollercoaster" - from his near death experience in 1934 at the age of three to his happy "movie star years" in the 1950s organizing and performing in hundreds of talent shows, all the way through his ruminations on mortality in 2005 after losing his beloved cats and being taken from his severely deteriorating home by a social service agency. Despite his declining health, Peter perseveres. This exhibit - the first retrospective of his work - is a testament to how art and the impetus to create it still thrives in even more dire circumstances. The curators of Almost There, Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickendenpresented an unvarnished view of an artist before his process has been altered or sanitized. Their photographs and videos were exhibited alongside Peter's paintings, scrapbooks, and ephemera as a way to further contextualize his work.

Poised at the intersection of biography and autobiography, Almost There: A Portrait of Peter Anton explored the curatorial complexities surrounding the discovery and stewardship of one man's work, as well as the definitions of so-called "high art" and "outsider art." By showing the decaying textures of Peter's house, paintings and scrapbooks - of Peter himself - this exhibit asked audiences to contextualize his art and ultimately, their own aesthetic concepts of and emotional responses to memory, aging and pain.

Life Lines: The Drawings of Charles Steffen

June 4 - August 28, 2010
Curated by Eugenie Johnson

Drawings on paper of figures, flowers, and Christ

This retrospective featured 30 pieces of Charles Steffen's work, covering a variety of imagery he knew in his limited sphere: neighbors, his mother, flowers and plants from the yard, a woman he once loved, and scenes from the Elgin State Hospital. More fantastical drawings show his experimentation in creating human forms merged with plants and distorting or combining male and female features.

Born into a family of eight children, Charles Steffen (1927-1995) studied art at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 1940s. While still in school, he suffered a mental breakdown and spent the next 15 years at the Elgin State Hospital where he began to make art. Upon his release, Steffen lived with his sister and spent most of his time creating, usually producing two or more drawings a day.

Shortly before his death, Steffen went to live in a small room in a men's retirement home on the north side of the city. Instead of throwing away the remainder of his drawings and photographs, Steffen decided instead to place them - over two thousand pieces - with his nephew, Christopher Preissing. Life Lines: The Drawings of Charles Steffen presented a collection that could possibly have been lost forever.

The Treasures of Ulysses Davis

February 12 - May 15, 2010
Curated by Susan Crawley

Two carved sculptures by Ulysses Davis; bust of Frederick Douglas on the left and seven-headed bust on the right

The Treasure of Ulysses Davis debuted at the High Museum in Atlanta and traveled to the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Menello Museum of Art in Florida, before arriving in Chicago. Organized by Susan Crawley of the High Museum of Art in collaboration with the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation of Savannah, Georgia, this retrospective featured about 109 pieces, including 78 from the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, which acquired most of Davis’s work after he died, fulfilling his desire to keep his corpus intact.

Davis (1914–1990) was a Savannah barber who created a diverse but unified body of highly refined sculpture that reflects his deep faith, humor, and dignity. Because he wanted his work to stay together after he died, Davis rarely sold his sculptures. As a result, they have had little exposure outside Savannah, particularly since his death, and he is little known outside folk art circles. Davis’s sculptures, which range in height from six to over forty inches, can be divided into major categories: portraits of U.S. and African leaders; religious images; patriotism; works influenced by African forms; fantasy; flora and fauna; love; humor; and abstract decorative objects. Davis also carved utilitarian objects such as canes and furniture. Among the pieces owned by the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation is a group regarded as Davis’s masterwork: a series of 40 carved busts of all the U.S. presidents through George H. W. Bush. The exhibition increased public knowledge of and appreciation for the work of this much admired but rarely seen sculptor.