“7 of 9,” Sculptor out to Save the Environment through Art: Margot McMahon

Posted by: Elaine Luther

Margot McMahon came by her art materials naturally, as a child growing up on Chicago area’s northern shores of Lake Michigan, she would spy driftwood from a distance and see an image in the wood, but as she got closer, the image would disappear.  While some children might think, “hmm, that’s interesting,” and leave it at that, Margot took the wood back to her house to carve it until that dog or cat, or fish, or whatever she saw, came back into view, so that everyone could see it.

How did she begin sculpting with clay?  She dug it up from the cliff areas near the family home when she discovered veins of clay.  “I would try and get the stones out and then add more water and then I starting modeling the clay.”  By junior high school age, her family had given her a side porch to use as her own studio, and by high school, she was given the larger back porch, which had a view of the lake.

As the seventh of nine children, she says she had plenty of time to herself.

She sculpts in clay, carves in wood and even welds steel but she says, “everything is drawing,” even if she’s making those lines with a chainsaw in a dead tree, at the behest of the park district.

Asked, “do you want to change the world with your art?”  She responds with a resolute “Absolutely!”

It’s not surprising that she has this belief once you realize that her father held it too.  He started out as a cartoonist during World War II, in which he served in combat in Europe.  Upon his return, he immersed himself into art making as a way to recover from war time horrors.

He later became a court illustrator, covering the Emmitt Till murder trial for Life Magazine.

McMahon writes on a family history blog, “Though the perpetrators were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury, the public response and northern press coverage of the trial became a catalyst for change. Dad recognized that “art could effectuate social change.” The Life magazine Emmett Till trial article changed a cartoonist father into an Artist Reporter.” 

She says of her father, “most of his work was about justice through painting.”

McMahon says, “My heroes in middle school were Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson — they way that they could write so beautifully and describe these horrors of the world” and affect change, had a profound effect.

“So my sculpture is environmental statements — human, plant, animal.”

As part of this, she attended an environmental art conference which is a group of people trying to use music, visual art, more, to show the beauty and variety of the world, and to convince people to take better care of the world.

McMahon says passionately that we must listen to the birds, the Meadowlarks and Bobolinks, and it turns out that when we listen to them and do what’s best for the birds, it’s also good for us.

Just as when she was a child, she continues to come by some of her materials naturally.  There are wooden birds in her studio are carved out of a 300 year old maple tree that was knocked down in a big storm in 2011 — the same storm that damaged 60% of the 103 year old glass roof of the Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago’s jewel of a conservatory with a fern room designed by famed landscape designer Jens Jensen. 

The fact that this tree survived all the storms for 300 years but not this one tells us something, it tells us that the climate has changed.  “It is proof that our climate is more extreme and if the winds is pulling a tree out of the ground that’s 300 years old, what is happening to the hollow bones of birds?”  And where will those birds go, when the tree is gone? she asks.

That’s why she sculpted the birds out of that particular piece of wood.  That grouping of birds was displayed on an iron grid that she welded, at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.  The steel grid is meant to evoke butterflies, as pinned down in a collection box. 

Chicago Tree Project  

Chicagoans may be familiar with the “art trees” that are popping up all over, including the lake front, but also at parks all over the city.  The Chicago Park District wanted a way to educate people about the role that dead trees have in the ecosystem.  The first trees in the Tree Project were simply painted all over with a single color, with a sign explaining all the uses various birds and insects have for a dead tree.

McMahon points out that a stump may look dead to us, but not truly be dead, because it’s extensive root system is connected to other trees, the network will keep those roots alive for up to 100 years. 

She’s working on an instructional book this year about how to care for parkway trees — those are those trees in between the sidewalk and the street in a strip of grass, that at least in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, belongs to the city or village.  The book will be illustrated with images of not only her own Chicago Tree Project trees, but all of them from the five seasons so far of the project.

“The Chicago Tree Project has been a wonderful experience for all the artists,” and wherever they go in the city, in every neighborhood, people are excited.

Once, while on a scaffolding, carving a tree with a chain saw, she cut a line in her three dimensional drawing, and suddenly, people came pouring out of their apartments, down to the street, to look up at her work.  She doesn’t know what she did with that one cut, but it allowed everyone, who had apparently been watching from their windows, to see what she had been creating all along.

Just Plain Hardworking

Three years after graduating from Yale University with a Masters in Fine Arts, McMahon created a show at the Chicago Historical Society (now called the Chicago History Museum) of ten Chicagoans who made the city, 5 men and 5 women, called “ten Chicagoans: Just Plain Hardworking.”  The project was about unsung heroes, she sculpted them, another artist photographed them and each person’s neighborhood was featured in a painting by her father, Franklin McMahon.

In a move that would become a signature of how she works on each project, she formed a committee to determine who these 10 Chicagoans would be. 

“How else could I do it?”  she asked, “that’s how I was raised.”

The person she had to fight for the hardest to have included was Hildur Lindquist of the Andersonville neighborhood in Chicago, because others on the committee saw her as “just a housewife.”  During the depression, Mrs. Lindquist, whose husband was a housepainter, would feed anyone who was hungry.  And when she swept her sidewalk, she would sweep, then keep going all the way around the block and back to her house.

The idea was “what I do in this home extends to the community.”

The other nine Chicagoans featured in the project were Delois Barrett Campbell, Frank Drehobl, Maria Enriquez de Allen, Monsignor John Egan, Frank Lumpkin, Ruth Rothstein, Walter Piotrowski, Florence Scala and G.H. Wong.

McMahon’s sculpture of gospel singer Delois Barrett Campbell was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Funding for the exhibition came from the Retirement Research Foundation as well as the Chicago Historical Society.

The group of ten sculptures, each cast in Fondu Ciment, at a size of slightly larger than life, moved from the Chicago History Center to DePaul University in Chicago, where they were on display for 25 years.

Fondu Ciment is McMahon’s signature material, it’s lighter weight and more affordable than casting in bronze.  Using this material instead of bronze made the show possible. 

Her most recent project, of the past two years, has been sculpting Gwendolyn Brooks, the Pulitzer Prizing winning poet who was also poet laureate of Illinois from 1968 until her death in 2000.  Her bronze interpretive portrait, as she calls it, will be installed in Brooks Park in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood in June 2018. 

Of the recent confederate statues that have been removed, she muses that she’d love to melt some of those down and cast them into sculptures of Ida B. Wells, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, Margaret Burrow and Margaret Walker. 

There will always be more stories to tell through sculpting and McMahon is eager to tell them.


Interview, conducted March 22, 2018

Exhibition Catalog, Just Plain Hardworking, 1987

McMahon family history blog

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