My heartbeat swells quickly to the rhythm of the saxophone. I am in an apartment near 55th and Everett, praying I don’t knock any of the thousands of art pieces down to the ground. Alice Scott is showing us around her home, and with each step through the old wooden doorways, paintings, figurines, dioramas, and masks appear and disappear back into the depths of her home. “These are all things that remind us of something,” she says over the music, gesturing vaguely behind her. Soft murmurs and firm nods follow, as everyone in attendance seems to remember something.
A conceptual installation artist, a South Shore government ethics activist, and a first-year University of Chicago student are among the hundred or so guests who crowded onto trolleys for the sixth annual Collectors’ Home Tour, run by Diasporal Rhythms, an organization comprised of African Diaspora art collectors. Earlier this morning, at the tour’s commencement, the organization’s logistics chair Cynthia Bowman speaks to me between hugging her Diasporal Rhythm friends. “Oh, we have been working for 20 hours a week since August 3 or 4 for this day. I hope it’s good—if it is, put my name on it!” she laughs.
During the 40-minute tour of the Scott residence, the 35 guests in the first group play a careful game, walking, peering, and sharing their thoughts. In her den, Scott proudly turns on a light-up plaque of an African king, which is actually a Budweiser advertisement, but then quickly moves on to her masks from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana. In her dining room, she points to shiny translucent statues of African-American men and women in a mirrored armoire and explains, “We got these at a flea market! Aren’t they great?”
At the end of the tour she introduces Nigerian-born artist Dayo Laoye, who talks about his sketches, charcoal drawings, ceramics and oil paintings hanging on the walls around us. “My works here are of Ashanti princesses, Yoruba drummers, lovers…anything…but I am mostly stimulated by music.” Laoye points to a speaker playing peppy jazz tunes that seem to have gotten louder since we arrived.Â “Mr. and Mrs. Scott love the unusualness of art. They love what catches their mind,” He leads a few of us to a framed sketch of continuous, thin black strokes that roughly resemble a wind instrument. It hangs prominently on the wall of a hallway. “They are the ones who pick these crumbles of drawings on my studio floor, grab it up and frame it here.” Laoye pauses, “There is a simplicity in the pieces. See this sculpture? It is made of few materials, yet means something so symbolic to the people who made it and now means something to the Scotts. There is a complexity there as well.”
With one last glance at the elephant foot footstool beside the door, our group hops on its transport for the day, a stately trolley–jovial driver included. We pass around the provided boxed lunches and crack open lemonades and sodas. As we drive by a small outdoor sculpture exhibition, the curious gasps are just as loud as the splitting aluminum.
We arrive at the McCoy residence, greeted by Patric McCoy in an orange tunic. As soon as he welcomes us into his home, a guest knocks down a framed drawing–one of the 1,100 pieces McCoy has accrued over 43 years. Everyone stares, while I breathe a sigh of relief knowing I won’t be the first one to cause any damage. McCoy continues speaking. Unlike the Scotts, McCoy has organized his works in thematic clusters. Near the front door, there are images of eyes. In the bathroom, the artwork has to do with flowers. One side of the hallway is covered in illustrations of men and the other side in women, because “men and women are always looking at each other,” he says.
Here the art is overwhelming, splaying like ivy over all available planes, and McCoy loves it that way. “The whole notion of displaying a painting by itself on a white wall isn’t always the best. I really want people to see all of this and let them focus on what they want. You’ll be drawn to something at first, and you can move to the next thing after that. I call it a ‘visual gumbo.’ I’m giving you a variety.”
The ingredients in the collection are produced by around 300 living artists, most of whom are African-Americans from Chicago. He advises the collectors in the group, “Get what moves you and what touches you. There are so many visual artists in this area, in our midst, and they just get overlooked. We just don’t see it. But we need to.”
I meander around his home, sometimes discussing a piece with a fellow guest and other times venturing on my own. I keep forgetting that I’m in someone’s home, not a gallery. This afternoon has made it clear how blurry the line between the two can be.
“Art is durable,” says McCoy. As long as their art lasts, I have a feeling these Chicago collectors will continue to open their doors to show curious visitors their collections, displayed according to their tastes, around their musings, and above their kitchen sinks. “Remember when that drawing fell? I didn’t get flustered. You know all those paintings from the Middle Ages? They used to be in castles, hanging next to torches in damp basements. Only now have we begun putting them in glass, but there’s no need to.Â Art lasts!”