St. Paul exhibit pairs works by Gordon Parks and photographer he inspired

Kathy Berdan January 22, 2020 at 10:42 pm Robin Hickman-Winfield’s hand hovers almost reverently inches from a portrait of Malcolm X taken by her great-uncle “Uncle Gordon” Parks. Renowned photographer Parks, who grew up in St. Paul, became friends with the civil rights firebrand after shooting the portrait. Malcolm X’s daughter is a close friend […]
On February 6, 2020

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Robin Hickman-Winfield looks at a portrait her great-uncle Gordon Parks shot of Malcolm X. The image is part of a new exhibit at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, “A Choice of Weapons, Honor and Dignity.” (Courtesy of Ann Benrud, Minnesota Museum of American Art)

Robin Hickman-Winfield’s hand hovers almost reverently inches from a portrait of Malcolm X taken by her great-uncle “Uncle Gordon” Parks.

Renowned photographer Parks, who grew up in St. Paul, became friends with the civil rights firebrand after shooting the portrait. Malcolm X’s daughter is a close friend who attended Hickman-Winfield’s wedding in October. She calls these people her “heart.”

The portrait is part of an exhibit that opened this week at the Minnesota Museum of American Art (The M) in St. Paul. Hickman-Winfield curated the exhibit titled “A Choice of Weapons, Honor and Dignity,” which also features photos by contemporary photographer Jamel Shabazz, who followed in Parks’ footsteps as a “street photographer.” (“A Choice of Weapons” is the title of Parks’ 1966 book.)

Brooklyn-based Shabazz will be in St. Paul this weekend, scheduled for an “in conversation” program with Hickman-Winfield at 1 p.m. Saturday at the M.

Gordon Parks, “American Gothic,” 1942. (Courtesy Minnesota Museum of American Art)

Hickman-Winfield says the exhibit is part of her promise to Uncle Gordon – to make sure the work he did, in particular for young black men – continues. Just before Parks died in 2006, he asked his great-niece: “Baby, what’s going to happen to black boys? What did I really do?”

Hickman-Winfield told him: “Uncle Gordon, your living won’t be in vain. We’ve got this.

“My relationship with him is my inheritance.” says Hickman-Winfield.

And it’s an inheritance rich in stories, which Hickman-Winfield shared on a tour of the exhibition last week. The stories were peppered with celebrity names such as Denzel Washington, record producer Swizz Beatz and his wife, Alicia Keys. There was talk of Vogue and Life magazine, Hollywood and HBO.

But just as important to Parks’ story, says Hickman-Winfield, are the exhibit labels created by school students, sharing their impressions of the images, even inspiring a young man to poetry:

This picture makes me feel stone cold. The vibes make me feel so old. To be on your own, you gotta be so bold, to go against what you’re told, and to take the long road. – Isaac Barrrera.

The students are Gordon Parks Scholars from St. Paul’s Gordon Parks High School, where Hickman-Winfield leads a three-week course about her great-uncle’s legacy. She is CEO and executive producer of SoulTouch Productions.

Parks was born in Kansas but was sent to St. Paul to live with his sister and her husband when he was a teen. He and his brother-in-law didn’t get along and Parks was kicked out of the house. He lived on the streets for a while and later worked as a musician, train porter and waiter at the Saint Paul Hotel. He talked his way into a fashion photo shoot at St. Paul women’s clothing store Frank Murphy. Parks went on to shoot fashion for Vogue, poverty for Life and images of poverty and segregation for the Farm Security Administration. He was a composer and the first African-American director at a major Hollywood studio.

Though he was her grandmother’s brother, he was always “Uncle Gordon” to Hickman-Winfield, who says she’s a “fifth-generation Minnesotan who grew up in Selby-Dale by way of Rondo” in St. Paul. “I adored Uncle Gordon since I was little.”

“Father and Sons,” by Jamel Shabazz (Courtesy of the artist)

While Hickman-Winfield was attending Howard University in Washington, D.C., she would go to New York City to visit Parks. She rarely told people she had a famous relative, even after Uncle Gordon told her, “Baby, you’ve got to start telling people who you belong to.”

“It was a long journey with Uncle Gordon,” says Hickman-Winfield, who was a producer on the 2000 HBO documentary “Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks.” That was also the title of a 1998 traveling exhibition she helped bring to the M.

Hickman-Winfield says her time with Uncle Gordon included “many tears, laughter, strategizing and fears that we shared.”

And a ratty blue fleece, which is on display along with other family pieces just outside the formal exhibit. Hickman-Winfield says she had gone to interview Parks in 2005 for a VocalEssence choral concert that was honoring him in the Twin Cities. When Parks came out for the interview, his great-niece says, he was wearing that fleece. When she complained, he said, “It’s fine. It’ll look good.”

In a label explaining the sweater, Hickman-Winfield says: That’s why he was the master. He was great and comfortable and the vibrant blue sweater was absolutely perfect. When I went to his apartment the night before the memorial service, his oldest daughter asked me to take keepsakes. I carried with me a baby photo, a few ascots and “that” sweater with silver hairs, pipe tobacco in the pockets, and … lint balls.

Hickman-Winfield met Shabazz, whose photos share the exhibit with Parks’, when Shabazz won the Gordon Parks Foundation Award in 2018. Shabazz has long cited Parks as a major influence on his work. When Shabazz visited St. Paul in 2013, Hickman-Winfield took him on a tour. “We walked in Uncle Gordon’s footsteps,” including the house where he lived and the Saint Paul Hotel.

Hickman-Winfield thought: “I gotta get these two together.”

The exhibit is divided into four areas, where the photos of Parks and Shabazz tell stories of Love, Hope, Resilence and Faith. The exhibit adds “Honor and Dignity” to the title of Parks’ book “A Choice of Weapons.”

“I hope all the people who come through will be armored up when they leave here,” Hickman-Winfield says.

‘A Choice of Weapons, Honor and Dignity: The Visions of Gordon Parks and Jamel Shabazz’

  • When: Opens Thursday, Jan. 23, with a party from 6 to 8 p.m., runs through April 19
  • Where: The M, 350 N. Robert St., St. Paul
  • Admission: Free
  • Info: mmaa.org
  • Plus: Related events throughout the exhibit include curator tours, family day and artist talks.

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