The Artist Lovingly Known As EJ
Screening of Video Tribute to EJ Montgomery, Sept. 30, 2014
Evangeline J. Montgomery, lovingly known as EJ, has had many roles in American culture, particularly the multi-layered facets of African American art. Montgomery, now 84, has been a printmaker, a metal and fiber artist, museum worker, curator, arts administrator and mentor.
And she has always stepped forward as a spirited activist.
But she has never been the subject of a documentary examining her work and contributions. Now Montgomery’s story is the inaugural portrait in a new series, the Printmaking Legacy Project. The 15 minute tribute, titled “Portfolios: Evangeline J Montgomery,” had its first screening September 30, 2014, at the Cosmos Club in Washington D.C.
“It really concentrates on my work,” says Montgomery. “I haven’t had a retrospective.” But she has had numerous, solo shows and a review of her rich and long career was published in the “25 Who Made a Difference" issue of the IRAAA. After summing up her career and voluntary service in that issue, art historian Floyd Coleman said:
EJ knows everyone, and they know her. She has been indefatigable in helping to develop a network of artists and scholars throughout the Diaspora. To show support for artists, it has not been uncommon for EJ to attend opening receptions at Stella Jones Gallery in New Orleans, the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American artists in Boston, or the Sherri Washington Gallery in Detroit, and when representing the Cultural Programs Office, U.S. State Department, she shows up at exhibition openings in Ecuador, Taiwan and Germany.
EJ has helped to advance the careers of numerous emerging and mature artists. She has collected their work and often encouraged others to do so as well. Before moving to Washington from California, she even comprise several vertebrae in the backbone of this journal as she assisted editor Samella Lewis. For the past 35 years, EJ has been upfront and behind the scenes in all of these ways and more. 1
Susan J. Goldman, an internationally recognized printmaker and producer of the video, found Montgomery’s story amazing, as the two worked together in 2010 on a project at George Mason University in Northern Virginia. “When you print with people you learn a lot about people. EJ had these amazing stories and she was so special. She doesn’t brag about her life.”
For her part Montgomery was intrigued by Goldman’s documentary “Midwest Matrix,” a survey of printmaking in that region of the US. After their initial collaboration, the two continued working together at Goldman’s suburban Washington studio, the Lily Press.
“She decided she was going to do individual artists,” says Montgomery. The art in the video portrait is from recent work Montgomery did with Goldman, the two mixing colors with Miles Davis playing in the background.
“All the work is abstract and it is very much based on nature and memory,” says Montgomery.
Right now, Montgomery is focusing on print work not only because of the exquisite results but because she can use an assistant. Since she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1994, she has given up her metal work.
The metal work included sterling silver, ancestral boxes “to hold something precious” and incense burners. This work relates to Montgomery’s memory of her mother writing a thought on paper, burning the paper in an antique bronze incense burner, and praying on it. The ancestral boxes also recall African tradition of creating reliquary containers to focus and strengthen connections with ancestors.
Montgomery’s boxes inspired Mende poet Baba Kone to write a poem, "Ancestral Box," about them, inscribed "From Africa, to a sister in San Franciso, 1972." The poem includes these lines:
To see the ancestral box in one's life,
Gives the whole circle of one's existence
An Ancestral box
The ancestral seen in all symbols,
of dust, of gold, of brass, of silver
That weighs it, but for the elders’ minds
Is given its full sacredness….
In a similar vein, Montgomery created fiber figures of remembrance. Art historian Nkiru Nzegwu described the difficult circumstances that led to this creation: “In 1978 when her world was falling apart: the end of a marriage, the loss of a mother, no job, no family, no financial means of support, Montgomery intuitively did what those displaced Africans in 17th, 18th and 19th century America did.” She created a reliquary figure that was wrapped in white and placed within it seven beaded hearts. “The seven hearts honor the seven daughters her biological mother bore; seven sisters she never met…. Linking her biological mother to the woman who had been her mother (by adoption), and whose death she was then mourning, Montgomery drew together all the loose uncommemorated strands in her life, in a rite of validation.” 2
Now, concentrating on prints, she says, “I can pace myself and have helpers. I have had to change focus because it was not as easy for me to do metal work,” she explains.
Born in New York City in 1930, her love of painting began early with an oil painting set. Her first job, following high school, was painting faces on dolls and religious statues. After marrying she moved to Los Angeles. In 1954 and 1955 she studied with local craftsmen and worked for the African American jewelry designer Thomas Usher. She received her college and BFA degrees she worked as an independent curator and then later for state and nonprofit organizations.
One of the highlights of her California period was her discovery a trove of untouched documents about sculptor Sargent Johnson (1887-1967). Although Johnson’s works reflected the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and WPA eras, Johnson was not usually associated with those movements because he spent much of his adult life in the Bay Area. By organizing the 1971 Sargent Johnson retrospective at the Oakland Museum, Montgomery helped to establish Johnson to his rightful place in African American and American art history.
In 1980 she moved to Washington. Her award-winning career as an arts administration began in 1983 when she joined the staff of the U.S. Information Agency, later merged into the Department of State Cultural Programs. The early 1980s was a time when a career of arts administration was just taking shape and Montgomery brought her skills as a curator and her eye for recognizing talent to the new field. One of the tasks at the federal job was suggesting and sending American art and artists abroad to show U.S. creativity and she was able to include people like printmaker Margo Humphrey in the program. Humphrey has work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
Montgomery speaks proudly of the years working with the National Conference of Artists, an African American group. Planning shows and interacting with the artists spread around the country, was “exciting,” she says. As a curator she organized more than 200 exhibitions.
Not every phase of Montgomery’s career can be reviewed in a 15 minute film, Goldman says quite apologetically. She decided to borrow an artistic term and call them portfolios. When finished, the snapshots will provide glimpses of the interior life and external expression of an artist. In Montgomery’s case there are examples of the richly textured and colors of her abstraction. “I wanted to emphasis that she is a special soul, there’s something very tender and caring in her being. And she had a vision,” says Goldman.
Over the years Montgomery has had solo shows ranging from one at Hampton University in 1973 to Memories Revealed: Current Works by E.J. Montgomery at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Morgan State University in 2010.
By now, after so many active years, people know EJ as a treasure herself, with serene face, silver flip hairstyle and elegant but simple dress. But few know that she has been building a treasure chest of photographs of artists and arts events. Armed with a camera at every event, she has compiled an important documentary history.
“I started photographing for my own records while I was curating shows," she says. "I wanted to capture scenes and wanted to keep up with individual artists.” Keep up she did, capturing moments in the lives of modern dancer, Katherine Dunham, art historian James A. Porter, artist Aaron Douglas and many notable others. In California, this versatile creator also did artful photography and one of her favorite spots to shoot was along the shoreline at Point Lobos, near Carmel and Big Sur.
Even more rewarding than great fame is a life of art encompassing both making it and advancing the art of others — EJ Montgomery’s life. The reward comes to her in many forms of love and appreciation as well as recognition of her distinctive talent.
1. Floyd Coleman, "EJ Montgomery, Up Front and Behind the Scenes," IRAAA, vol. 18, no. 1, 2001, p. 46.
2. Nkiru Nzegwu, "Evangeline J. Montgomery: Commemorating Altars to Ancestors," Celebrating African Identity: Politics and Icons of Representation (exhibition catalog), CANBAIA, 1992, p. 18.
Jacqueline Trescott is an independent writer and editor whose recent projects include editing Through the Eyes of James A. Porter: America Art by Starmanda Bullock, a forthcoming study of the Howard University artist and teacher. Trescott formerly was a reporter for the Washington Post Style section.