A month after she premiered her new movie about Aledo, Christina Shaver was back in the Mercer County seat to tackle another topic close to her heart.
A Chicago filmmaker, Shaver showed her fictional “Everything Fun You Could Possibly Do in Aledo, Illinois” – which reunites two childhood friends from Aledo after three decades apart – on Aug. 19, 2023 at Rock Island’s Center for Living Arts in an invitation-only screening.
She was back in Aledo all this week to shoot and research for her new documentary, “Gertrude,” about Surrealist painter Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-1977), who lived briefly in town as a child and returned to visit family many times.
She was selling her paintings for less than $50 in Chicago at art fairs when she was alive, and several paintings sold last year for $2.2 million at auction.
A key figure in Shaver’s documentary – art historian and Abercrombie expert Susan Weininger – will speak tonight (Friday, Sept. 22) at a 6 p.m. reception at the Essley-Noble Museum at Mercer County Historical Society, 1406 SE 2nd Avenue, Aledo.
While filming her contemporary Aledo movie in 2022, Shaver met W.J. Albertson (an Abercrombie collector), who suggested she make a film about her.
“He introduced me to Susan and the rest is history,” Shaver said Thursday. “We were introduced to him by the mayor of Aledo to make sure we got the most of the city. He’s been a really great supporter of the arts in general.”
They have been filming the new doc in Aledo off and on since February 2023, and filmed there all this past week, including with Weininger at Mercer County High School.
“She is the foremost expert on Gertrude Abercrombie and her work,” Shaver said, noting she can’t predict when the flick will be released, ideally by 2025. “To make a documentary, it’s not a short project.”
Weininger is professor emerita of art history at Roosevelt University, Chicago, where she was Chair of the Department of History, Art History and Philosophy and taught there 37 years.
Shaver said Aledo was very influential to Abercrombie’s art and she returned there often to visit family.
The filmmaker has family roots in Aledo (her father grew up there) and said she feels “very connected to Gertrude in that way.”
“I would come to Aledo a lot to visit my family,” Shaver said. “Two years ago, I thought, ‘Why don’t I make a movie there?’ so I’ve got a gift for myself to just remember what it’s like to be here. I am very happy to be here for that.”
The August film premiere at Rock Island’s Center for Living Arts was great, filled with many people from Aledo, she said.
“I can’t wait to actually be able to come back here to town and play it in a more public way,” Shaver said, noting she gave a sneak preview of it privately this past June at the high school auditorium. Aledo Main Street asked her to return and show it publicly.
A strong link to the artist
Weininger said she also feels a special connection to Abercrombie, who lived many years in Chicago.
The future artist lived in Aledo (where her father was from) only about two years and her family moved to Chicago in 1916 when she was 7. Abercrombie was an only child of strict parents and she had many relatives in Aledo.
“She was part of this big warm family in Aledo, and her cousins kind of became like her siblings,” Weininger said. “She had a very close relationship with her cousins.”
“Aledo represented to her a warm, enveloping family feeling that she wasn’t getting in her nuclear family,” she said. “She’d spent summers here, holidays, maybe other school vacations. She continued to come back to Aledo for years, when she was grown and married and had her own child. So it remained a really, really important thing in her life.
“It represented home to her in an emotional way,” Weininger said, similar to Shaver’s feelings.
Born in Texas, Abercrombie spent most of her life in Chicago. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in romance languages and studied figure drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1936 and 1938, she won prizes at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Annual Exhibition of Works by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity. During the 1940s and 1950s, she was known for holding parties and artistic gatherings at her Hyde Park home, inviting visual artists and prominent jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie.
Abercrombie in the ‘30s became friends with a number of musicians. Her parents were opera singers and she could play the piano well.
“She could hum and whistle, in harmony, at the same time,” Weininger said. “It’s amazing; I’ve heard a recording of it. She was musically very talented, but she took her own path. She really loved jazz and she loved the people around jazz.”
“Really big jazz musicians were in her home,” she added. “Sometimes, they stayed at her home, because they couldn’t find a place that would accept them in Chicago. This was in the ‘40s and there was still a lot of racism. She felt a real kinship with these people.”
“The Modern Jazz squad used to live here off and on for two years,” Abercrombie reminisced to Studs Terkel in 1977 (shortly before her death) about the iconic The Modern Jazz Quartet, which had sprouted from Dizzy Gillespie’s rhythm section in the early 1950s. “They’d play here in town every two weeks, every month or two or three and they lived here. They were funny fellows and awfully sweet.”
Shaver said there was a song written in her honor, “Gertrude’s Bounce,” by jazz pianist Richie Powell, that she hopes to use in the film.
Posthumous fame in recent years
An NPR October 2021 profile wrote that Abercrombie was a “bohemian self-styled witch who hobnobbed with the leading jazz luminaries of her era was also an accomplished painter.”
She died at age 68, after years of declining health due to alcoholism and arthritis. But after the East Village gallery Karma mounted a retrospective in 2018, Gertrude Abercrombie became, posthumously, an art world star.
“It was her first exhibition in New York since the 1950s,” Robert Cozzolino said in the NPR profile. “People lost their minds. [Co-chief New York Times art critic] Roberta Smith wrote a long review, singing her praises. They published this thick book and it sold out immediately. And you know, I think when Gertrude Abercrombies come to auction now, they’re insane.”
She showed in New York at one solo show in her lifetime, but never had a national reputation, Weininger (the retired professor) said.
The artist lived in a ramshackle frame house on Chicago’s South Side, sweeping around in pointy black hats and capes, the NPR piece said.
“She was a character for days,” said Cozzolino, curator of the touring art show Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art. “I’m surprised somebody hasn’t made a biopic about her.”
“She made a living from art; she didn’t make a lot of money,” Weininger said Thursday. “She was not well-known outside of Chicago until 2018, when there was an exhibition in Elmhurst (near Chicago).”
Her reputation took off after a 2018 New York exhibit (of nearly 70 paintings) was reviewed in The New York Times. The piece described “lonely, poignant art of an overlooked American Surrealist painter from the Midwest.”
Abercrombie’s work has not had a solo show here since 1952 and her “return represents a herculean effort,” the Times review said. “Karma, the gallery (and publisher) where the show is on view, often outdoes itself, and has done so again, this time with assistance from the writer and independent curator Dan Nadel.”
Her art when she died couldn’t be given away for free, Weininger said, noting one painting later sold for $400,000.
“Faced with exploding demand for Abercrombie’s work, which only Susan can authenticate amidst a rapidly developing forgery market, Susan becomes the arbiter of Gertrude’s legacy,” says a synopsis about the new doc on its website (gertrudefilm.com). “But as the artist’s paintings are bought by private buyers, Gertrude’s dream of keeping her work publicly accessible is slipping away and Susan begins to wonder who will pick up the torch after her.
“Weaving together stories from an ensemble cast of those impacted by Gertrude’s rise, archival media and imaginative explorations of Gertrude’s paintings and the real life landscapes they depict, ‘Gertrude’ ignites reflection on whose work we value and why,” the site says.
A magical, surreal style
Abercrombie painted landscapes that looked a lot like western Illinois, including variations of a tree and a silo in Aledo, Weininger said. Another was a painting of a bathroom in Joy, Ill., with a stuffed owl.
This week was her first visit to Aledo, 199 miles west of Chicago. Shaver’s film will be the first documentary on Abercrombie.
The Essley-Noble Museum at the Mercer County Historical Society has four Abercrombie paintings on permanent display, and a portrait of the artist by a good friend of hers.
“This is a really great opportunity for folks to come out and learn about Gertrude Abercrombie,” Shaver said of tonight’s talk.
She has visited friends of the artist from her years in Hyde Park, one remaining family member in California, and recorded a phone conversation with the famous jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins (now 93), who was a friend of Gertrude. “We had a really nice phone interview with him,” Shaver said.
“There are many academics we still need to speak with,” she said. “The list goes on and on.”
“She developed a very personal style that was made up of objects that she owned,” Weininger said. “They’re mysterious, they’re resonant. They’re really interesting, and have been called surreal, although they’re not traditional surrealism.”
Abercrombie’s style was sometimes called “magic realism,” since you can name the images in the paintings (not abstract), she said. “It also isn’t real; it’s imaginary. She said, it’s always myself that I paint and it was herself. Her paintings are about her.”
Abercrombie also did many self-portraits. Some of her paintings would combine real things in incongruous combinations, like a giraffe sticking its head out of a house, Weininger said.
“Both those things are real – you can identify the house, can identify the giraffe, but normally you wouldn’t see something like that,” she said. “She transforms these real things into often mysterious, very resonant images.”
Shaver (who’s producing the film) also will record Weininger’s talk Friday night, which is a semi-formal event.
The doc’s director is Julia Hunter, a Chicago-based documentary director and cinematographer who has worked on shows for Apple TV+, AMC, VH1, Discovery+, and countless independent projects.
For more information on the documentary in progress, visit the film website HERE.