DeKALB – This year marks the centennial of Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ birth, and libraries, schools and art institutions across the state of Illinois are celebrating.
Brooks was famous for her poetry, but to celebrate the centennial, students at the Northern Illinois University School of Art and Design paid tribute with visual art inspired by the poems.
For many students, it was their first time reading more of Brooks’ work than what is found in an anthology. Paul Zollinger said he hadn’t really heard of her until this project. He based his photography on his reading of “the sonnet-ballad.”
“It’s about losing someone you care about,” he said. His project interpreted several lines from the poem: a line about war inspired a photo of tattered boots, the phrase “empty heart cups” led him to create a heart from the shards of broken mugs.
The art for the show is being displayed in two locations. An opening night event was held at the DeKalb Public Library, where student work can be viewed on the lower level. Artwork also is being shown simultaneously at Founders Memorial Library at NIU.
While Brooks isn’t taught in many survey courses, the centennial celebrations taking place across Illinois are testament to how important of a poet she was, said Beth McGowan, associate professor of English and librarian at NIU.
“She’s massive,” McGowan said.
Brooks published her first poem at age 13. By 17, she was being regularly published in the Chicago Defender. Before she was 30, she was winning regional poetry awards. In 1950, she became the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
“She never left the south side of Chicago,” McGowan said. Although she was born in Kansas, Brooks and her family moved to Chicago when she was 6 weeks old.
Briena Myrick, a student at NIU, made a three-photo exhibit inspired by the poem “To the young who want to die.”
“Things will get better,” she said as she summed up the photos. Each picture has a person with the “Hello My Name Is” name tag with a phrase exhibiting an aspect of depression, Myrick said. In each picture, the person is getting closer to asking for help, while the action of the photo shows them going on with their lives as though nothing is wrong.
“People with depression don’t always show it,” she said.
Later in life, Brooks became involved with the Black Panthers, McGowan said, when she was in her 50s. She also attended the opening of Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary School in DeKalb in 1999.
“She straddles so much,” McGowan said. She was part of the Mural Movement in the 1970s and wrote poems about the Wall of Respect in Chicago. “You can’t talk about Gwendolyn Brooks without talking about the context from where she emerges... She was a major poet outside of the African-American tradition.”
Samantha Hathaway, public relations and event manager at DeKalb Public Library, said the library was excited to host the exhibit.
“Her poetry is pretty well known and she’s a well-known artist,” she said.
While the project began as a tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks, McGowan said it will continue next year as a similar project with different artists. She said the interdisciplinary approach is something faculty and students want to continue.
“This is a library,” she said, “and the library acknowledges all research needs to be interdisciplinary.”
The exhibit will continue until Dec. 7, when a closing celebration will be held at NIU’s Founders Memorial Library.