The United Colors of Robert Earl Paige

The largest exhibition of Robert Paige’s work to date, The United Colors of Robert Earl Paige, surveys the iconic textile designs and painted fabric of one of the most generative artists/designers from the South Side of Chicago.  In addition to the fabric work made over the past sixty years, the exhibition will debut recent clay, wall/floor paintings, drawings, and collage work made during his Radicle Residency at Hyde Park Art Center in 2022-23. 

The exhibition, corresponding public program and upcoming catalog is part of Art Design Chicago, a citywide collaboration initiated by the Terra Foundation for American Art that highlights the city’s artistic heritage and creative communities. 

Robert Paige approaches art and craft as a joyful choreography between practical invention and material research. The fluid lines, intense colors, repeating circles and simple balance found in modernist paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, Sonia Delaunay, and Lazlo Maholy Nagy for example, are equally as influential to Paige’s style as the tight basket weaving techniques and symbology of West African cultures, the textured ripples on tree bark, and the unfettered improvisations of the Chicago jazz powerhouse the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).  Raised in the Woodlawn neighborhood, where he still resides, Paige makes artworks in response to the patterns, colors, and materials of everyday Black life. Paige playfully challenges the juxtaposition of art and craft in his hand-dyed textiles, cardboard collages, and ceramic tiles to encourage mental and physical liberation for all. 

The United Colors of Robert Earl Paige is made possible with the assistance of Curatorial Research Fellow, Gervais Marsh, Exhibition Assistant, Yeeseon Chae, Exhibitions & Residency Coordinator Tran Tran, Exhibition Designer, Dorian Sylvain and Textile Specialist, Frances Lee.

  • April 6 – October 27, 2024
  • Reception: April 6 at 1 – 4 pm
  • Gallery 1 & Cleve Carney Gallery

The United Colors of Robert Earl Paige is part of Art Design Chicago, a citywide collaboration initiated by the Terra Foundation for American Art that highlights the city’s artistic heritage and creative communities.

This exhibition is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

The United Colors of Robert Earl Paige

In pursuit of beauty is the essence of things, to coax beauty out of ugliness…if you are not willing to understand the small things, you are not ready to take on the big things. Beauty is ever present and should be present.

-Robert Earl Paige

Multigenerational learning and pedagogy are at the core of Paige’s art practice. A self-proclaimed “Doodler, tinkerer and dabbler”, Paige has taught art and design to youth for over four decades by facilitating material experimentation and purpose-driven creation.  Paige strongly believes in community participation to generate art and culture that speaks to the Black experience. Early in his career, Paige and Dr. Carol Adams, founded EVERYDAY ART, an organization that hosted art exhibitions in unlikely places (like laundromats and funeral homes) and the first arts festival at South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago. Through EVERYDAY ART, Paige and Adams thought to generate a community aesthetic that considered how Black community members both design and work toward a unified neighborhood appearance that embraces culture and heritage. In Paige’s words, “Everyday Art is designed to demonstrate the role of the arts in the revitalization of a rapidly changing community and to involve all residents –artist and non-artist alike– in the creation of a community aesthetic.” Through his graphic interlocked designs and complimentary color palette, Paige puts the unity back in community. 

Collaboration with other makers empowers Paige to expand the variety of objects he produces. For this exhibition, he has collaborated with Emily Winter of the Weaving Mill to introduce a new colorful hand woven textile based on a linear drawing on graph paper by his 9 year old daughter (at the time of the drawing). The title of the show references the title of this drawing, which echoes the sentiment of the controversial 1990s marketing campaign for the clothing company Benetton. Like the 90s, the current moment is charged with fear, loss, and rage due to homophobia, racism, drug wars, extreme poverty and wealth, and the restriction of reproductive rights to name a few social issues. The appropriation of this title for Paige’s exhibition is a call for humankind to come together and create solutions. According to Paige, “If we allow ourselves to understand everything’s connected, completely, you shouldn’t try to break the chain. Everything is connected and I’m connected to everything, so I’m appreciative of that knowledge, it’s all humanity.” 

The United Colors of Robert Earl Paige is curated by Allison Peters Quinn, Director of Exhibition & Residency Programs, in collaboration with the artist. The exhibition highlights the importance of understanding the artist’s work at this moment of deep rooted inequity in America. There are lessons to be learned about the role of beauty and morality in Paige’s artworks (which is a concept he borrows from African aesthetics) that may offer solutions. His iconic “Power to the People” design of half circles building upward and outward in an organized mesh of individuals is a strong example of how simple gestures and lines can illustrate solidarity.  The exhibition brings together a selection of Paige’s beloved fabrics and textile work, and rarely seen drawings, collage, assemblages, and ceramic objects that amplify the importance of lifelong learning and relationship-building to Paige’s practice. 

About the Artist

Photo: Tom Van Eynde, 2022

Robert Earl Paige (b.1937, Chicago) is an interdisciplinary artist, designer, and educator actively making work that challenges the distinction between fine art and craft by combining elements from African aesthetic traditions, modernist painting, Bauhaus architecture, and vernacular invention in his objects, collages, and fabrics. He earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and began his career working for the architectural design firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill before transitioning to creating commercial objects and fashion. He has partnered with commercial enterprises such as the Italian fashion house Fiorio and Sears, Roebuck and Co. department stores to produce scarves and interior decor respectively. His signature line the Dakkabar Collection was sold nationwide in over 100 stores and included several bedroom and home furnishing pieces inspired by West African imagery with a contemporary palette in the 1970s. 

Early in the Black Arts Movement, Paige participated and believes strongly in its ideology of community participation in art and culture, which continues to be of focus in his pedagogy today. He has taught art and design principles to youth through Gallery 37 and is a frequent lecturer with the nomadic Black Arts Movement School Modality. Paige has been an artist-in-residence for many organizations, including the Cabrini Green neighborhood alliance, DuSable Museum of African American History, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York), Ndebele Foundation (South Africa) and Hyde Park Art Center.  Works by Robert Paige have been exhibited at Salon94 Design and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City, and in Chicago at the SMART Museum of Art and the Chicago Cultural Center, among others.

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