The idea of exploiting welding methods and the tensile strength of metals opened up many possibilities to me. This idea was actually linked to the increasing recognition among artists that an art which was representative of our own time ought to use materials and techniques that were at hand, whether it was new experiments using plastics, new kinds of paints, new kinds of surfaces in painting, or using materials developed during the war effort . . .
The ’50s were before the civil rights movement. Segregation was, as they say, the law of the land, and certainly existed in Chicago. Negroes, as we were called then, lived on the South Side and on the West Side in well-defined neighborhoods . . .
I came to see the strength of my own roots and past. The success of the early phase of the civil rights movement, which resulted in voting rights legislation and the breaking down of obvious barriers like segregated drinking fountains and public accommodations, gave one a sense of being able to prevail. What happened after that was chastening, tempering. Another thing, too, is to discover the obvious—that the foundations of American society were built upon the backs of our forefathers.
Then there’s the whole idea that as you start to explore what the arts are or can mean in terms of cultural and economic development and identity, the European models seem anachronistic, aristocratic, and elitist. For me, that was a dead end, or a wrong end . . .
My own use of winged forms in the early ’50s is based on mythological themes, like Icarus and Winged Victory. It’s about, on the one hand, trying to achieve victory or freedom internally.
It’s also about investigating ideas of personal and collective freedom. My use of these forms has roots and resonances in the African-American experience and is also a universal symbol. People have always seen birds flying and wished they could fly.