Dinner With Dale: An afternoon in the company of South Side artists

Dale Washington with his art, photo by Sam Bowman
It’s an exceptionally frigid Sunday of an exceptionally frigid winter, and that special combination of an enormous snowfall followed by sub-zero temperatures has left the street in ruins. Enormous ridges of salty ice seem to block every path, inspiring Herbert to extend his elbow to me as an offer of safe passage from his car to the house. This act of chivalry is the natural complement to the rest of the Herbert Hardwick gestalt; he is impeccably dressed, from his leather gloves and his ubiquitous beret to his well-trimmed mustache.

It’s fitting that Herbert is the one accompanying me to Dale Washington’s studio on this freezing afternoon. It was Herbert, after all, who first contacted me on Dale’s behalf two years ago after I reviewed a collection of his work at the Hyde Park Art Center.

Dear Ms. Ewing,
I am attempting to contact you on behalf of Dale Washington. Dale created the SUNRISE exhibit for which you wrote such a pleasing review.
Dale wishes to meet you and thank you personally. He holds a monthly open studio and dinner. This month’s is scheduled for this Sunday afternoon. Dale extends an invitation to you to attend. There is always an interesting group of artists in attendance. Dale is an excellent chef. Do bring a guest if you care to.
His studio is located in the South Shore neighborhood. If Sunday is inconvenient please either email or phone me with a time and place convenient for you and I shall direct Dale to meet you there.

Thank you,
Herbert H. Hardwick

When I arrived that first time at the apartment building on Paxton, I didn’t know what I was signing up for. The afternoon turned out to be an unwitting initiation into the web of artists, photographers, and old friends who surround Dale Washington. Of course, we’ve all got our networks. But somehow, Dale has ended up with an especially good one. The Web of Dale is interesting enough that the Hyde Park Art Center built an entire show around it. “Kiss on the Cheek,” which ran from July to October of last year, was a collection of portraits depicting people HPAC handily called “the personalities in the current moment of Chicago’s art collecting community, including contemporary art collectors, artists, and art administrators.” A more concise description would have been: “people in Dale Washington’s apartment on a Sunday afternoon.”

Which is where I find myself this afternoon, the radiator hissing soothingly as I fumble with my winter things. When I’ve finally gotten my coat off and get a chance to look over the evening’s meal, I inhale deeply. The table is crowded with dishes of lambchops, porkchops, stewed chicken, sweet potatoes, lasagna, red beans, a vibrant salad, potatoes, rutabagas, and everything else you could want on a cold day.

Having attended to the most important task–taking stock of the food–I greet the assembled group. There’s Lowell, a cantankerous painter with an eyepatch and a formidable beard. Patric McCoy, an environmental chemist and the city’s most influential collector of art by African-Americans. Rachell, a thunderstorm of a woman, mighty and beautiful all at once. Sam Greenlee, author of “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” a revolutionary novel from 1969 that was turned into a film in1973. Major, a childhood friend of Dale’s, who sports a huge grin and huger biceps. There’s me, scribbling notes, and Herbert, Dale’s loyal friend. And finally, the man himself.

Dale is tall and dark, clad in a wide linen shirt that serves as a welcome reminder of warmer days. He reminds me of the Tin Man of Oz–brooding, yet guileless. He is the one who cooked all the delicious food, and he is the reason everyone is gathered here today. In the midst of the conversation and music filling the small space, Dale’s voice is muted. His paintings, however, shout from every corner. Canvases are everywhere: paintings compete for your attention in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in unceremonious piles in front of a windowsill where pies are cooling. At times he seems too mild-mannered to have brought such forceful things into the world, but the very raw energy that makes his work startling is the crux of how he’s made his mark on the South Side art scene. He’s been the Artist of the Year at the Southside Community Art Center, had two solo exhibits at the Hyde Park Art Center, and features prominently in the collections of Patric McCoy and Daniel Parker. But Dale’s greatest accolades come from his peers in the art world, who admire his unusual generosity. His eagerness to collaborate always seems to override his desire for personal gain. It doesn’t make him a good businessman, but he’s a great host.

“You met Sam before, right?” asks Dale.

“I did. It was crazy, because I had just read ‘The Spook Who Sat by the Door’ for class at school, and then this man was sitting next to me and asked me to pass him a fork, and he said ‘My name is Sam Greenlee,’ and–“

“And you said, ‘I thought you was dead!’” hollers Rachell.

“Wishful thinking,” added Herbert.
image courtesy of HPAC
Sam, almost eighty years old, is certainly mature enough to take it in stride. He retorts with an excellent paraphrase of Mark Twain: “Rumors of my death have been greatly anticipated.” He is gaunt, perpetually leaning forward, peering at the world through the wide circular glasses perched between a natty cap and a white beard. He muses on his own unpopularity as I serve myself some sweet potatoes. “I remember when the Organization of Black Arts and Culture thought I was in Europe, and they took the opportunity to vote on whether to retain me, because at the time I was married to a Dutch woman. Fifteen voted to get rid of me, and fourteen voted to retain me. I told them to kiss my black motherfuckin’ ass!”

Herbert clucks at Sam for his foul language, which incites much eye-rolling on the part of Rachell. “The girl’s grown!” she says, with a nod to me. “She can hear it!”

Dale, being the ostensible subject of this article and seeking assurance that the capers of his guests wouldn’t keep me from taking decent notes on his life, sits down next to me and begins to tell a tale. He talks about Joe Clark, whose Hyde Park gallery Artwerks was an important gathering spot for South Side artists. “I used to spend time there,” he says wistfully, “and Joe was so generous. He just gave us all a space for artists to meet each other, and show our work, without having to be tied to one gallery. Which is good for me, because I’m a nomad…”

“A nomad!” interrupts Lowell, “Like he’s got camel shit on his shoes.”

Dale’s Aunt Lauren, in the corner, adjusts her wig and reaches for a pork chop. Dale shows me a portrait of her and another aunt, Aunt Ada. It’s called “Two Aunts.” It does her justice. He continues trying to tell me about his life, about the antics he and Major got mixed up in when they were kids, about how he started painting, about the glory days at Artwerks. As Dale sees it, Joe laid a foundation for the success of African-American artists in the city. And where is Joe now? Dale sighs. “Back home, in Gary, Indiana, where he grew up. Everything is going down the drain now. We bought into pop culture too much, instead of looking after each other. Everyone wants to be told what to do, instead of just doing something together….”

The sound of the Temptations flowing from the speaker mitigates the sadness a little, but not much, and I suddenly feel weary. Then Sam interrupts with an announcement.

“Hold on! I have a short poem.” Everyone turns to look. He recites: “The Obama appointments: White folks, white folks, everywhere–and not a drop of ink. Boola, boola, baby.” The group is perplexed, then annoyed, and an Obama fight breaks out.

“Come on, Sam,” roars Lowell. “There’s no way anyone could see that picture from Election Day and say that the old way was better. Michelle…in that red dress…”

“Well, I admire his taste in females, but not in politics.”

“Let’s just be happy!” Rachell says. “Why can’t we just be happy that a black man is president?”

Sam grunts. “I apologize for my blasphemy. Lowell just likes him because of Oprah.”

Lowell is incensed. “I’ve never watched Oprah!”

“You mean you’ve never watched it with both eyes, you blind motherfucker!”

“All right now, Lowell,” says Dale. “Sit down and calm down. Robert is going to play something for us.”

Robert sits down with his guitar and grins broadly around the room. He is an amiable, toothless Brazilian who sometimes seems to have arrived here from another planet. It is a planet I would like to visit. Now, as he strums quietly, a calm falls over the room. Dale beams as his friends listen quietly. The cold is outside and the warmth is inside, and as he surveys this group of people who have come to share good food and good company, it is clear that even the most solitary man is defined by the people with whom he passes time, the people who bastion him from the world. People who feel like just doing something together.

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