Creatively Black: Sapphire and Crystals
By Arlene Turner Crawford
Presented by Omni-U Virtual University
Above image by Artist Tony Smith
One of the crucial questions around the social upheavals of the 1960s was, “How can art and culture most effectively participate and contribute to the quest for self-determination and liberation?” As I’ve been learning, it was wildfire. It spread out to peoples, to cultures, to all the people who did not have a chance to be their own voice. Young people, women, men, different cultures were caught up in the same ideas. The desire for self-determination and nationhood proposed its own cluster of symbolisms, mythologies, critique, and iconography. Both concepts are important. To me, Self-determination is concerned with the relationship between art AND politics. Nationhood is concerned with the art OF politics. These are some of the pivotal ideas that I had in my life and, because of those ideas, I was really interested in being a part of collectives and of having our own voices and self-determination. Collectives are very good methods for doing that.
Throughout the history of the African American people in this country, Black women have been a dynamic force in forwarding our struggles for freedom, human and civil rights, and personal dignity. Beyond that, women, all over the world, have taken up the mission of struggling for equality and justice. Apparently, it is because of their feminine nature that women are driven to nurture, protect, and defend.
"Sapphire & Crystals" was an organization of artists that came together through the efforts of Marva Jolly and Felicia Grant Preston. They contacted a network of women they knew at Chicago State University and in the arts. Their idea was that women artists of African descent take the lead in producing their own shows. This resulted in the first exhibit of "The Sapphire & Crystals Collective" at the historic South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), in 1987.
Marva Jolly was a social worker who put that work aside to pursue her passion for creating art. Her first organization,"Mudpeoples", was a group that consisted of both women and other people who were involved in pottery and working with clay. After she and Felicia Grant Preston, an aspiring artist, started discussing creating venues to show and develop the work of African American women artists, a group of us gathered at Marva's studio. The Collective that followed was essentially formed by word-of-mouth as each of us told others about the organization.
Above image by Ancestor Marva Jolly
When we came together, we realized that we needed to identify the things we wanted to see happen: our goals for exhibiting, our values - where we were coming from. In choosing the name, “Sapphire,” it was Marva's idea to take control of a bad myth, the "Amos 'n' Andy'' stereotype, and turning it on its head. "Sapphire" was a strong Black woman who "don't take no mess from nobody". That was the voice we intended to assert as we identified our spaces for exhibitions and got "out there" as artists. There was also a spiritual core within the organization. Artist Rose Blouin had been a spiritual advisor to many of the sisters. "Crystals" represented a spiritual gemstone to us. It was also a rock core - Earth and magic- in some interpretations. Other people have their own definitions of crystals, but we thought mainly of the spiritual connection between ourselves and the fact that crystals were organic and from the earth.
Coming together also involved evaluating our work and identifying which themes we would use. We produced new work for different exhibitions, discussed our history, as African Americans and as women, and examined our ideas. We decided to embrace themes, some of which were based on historical recollections, as often as possible: “The Way My Mama Did”; “Images”; “Issues and Identities” and “BeYond Race and Gender”, were just some of our themes. We also decided to take responsibility for curating and hanging the work ourselves. Every woman had to bring with her a commitment to be useful. We put our designers to task to do our layouts and design our flyers. Our writers were also involved. Our photographers helped us put together our media packages. Marva found a lot of the initial venues but, over our history, we were proactive and all of our members sought out venues in which to present our work.
Another one of our organizing principles was to create an opportunity for collectors to participate as well as to support us in order to provide a means of generating our own income. Initially,we started producing catalogs for sale so that the money could be re-invested. Another aspect of the" self-determination'' of Sapphire & Crystals was conducting silent auctions during openings. We wanted to offer the work at low starting prices- $150 or $200. Initially, we created self-portraits which we believed would encourage collectors, and other people who were interested in our work, to purchase our art for their collections.
Throughout its thirty-two-year history, "Sapphire & Crystals" has held exhibitions at many galleries and art centers both within the city and beyond including:
ARC Gallery, Artemisia Gallery, Carson Pirie Scott’s Vergie Buxton Gallery, Wood Street Gallery, Nicole Gallery, Bagit Gallery, Satori Fine Art, Union Street Gallery, South Shore Cultural Center Fine Art Gallery, South Side Community Art Center, Woman Made Gallery and Noyes Cultural Art Center.
Current active members of "Sapphire & Crystals" include:
Rose Blouin, Makeba Kedem-DuBose, Juarez Hawkins, Candace Hunter, Renee Williams Jefferson, Joyce Owens, Felicia Grant Preston, Patricia Stewart, Dorian Sylvain, Shirley J. Sullivan, Pearlie Taylor, Rhonda Wheatley, Shahar Caren Weaver and Shyvette Williams ,and myself, Arlene Turner Crawford."
Over the years, members have also included:
Dorothy Carter, Joanne Scott, Malika Jackson, Trish Williams, Cheryl Toles, Nicole Malcolm, Janet Sheard, Stephanie Bird, Lillian Morgan-Lewis, Carol James, Akosua Bandele, Evelyn Davis-Frazier, Yaunde Olu, Simone Bouyer, Faith Davis, Debra Dilworth, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Monica Plott Ratcliff, Annie Lee, Dorothy Perry, Beverly Warner, and Patricia Bohannon, Michelle Stutts.
Members who have joined the Ancestors and who are held in high esteem are Marva Pitchford Jolly, Venus Blue, Renee Townsend, Mary Reed Daniels and Anna M. Tyler.
"The Sapphire & Crystals Collective" was featured in the “Black Metropolis” segment of the series "Art & Design in Chicago'' ,which aired locally on WTTW (October, 2018). Members were also featured on the arts site "Sixty Inches From Center* in “The Vessels that Marva Made: An Interview with Members of Sapphire & Crystals,” December, 2018.
Sapphire & Crystals Artists
Felicia Grant Preston