A Look Inside ‘A Love Supreme’ at Chicago’s Elmhurst Art Museum

Norman Teague and thirty other artists answer the question: "Who awakened you personally and artistically?”

A man plays a small trumpet in an art gallery full of colorful art
Norman Teague. Audrey Henderson

“It still touches me,” artist and designer Norman Teague tells me in a soft-spoken voice as we sit in the glass-enclosed lobby of the Elmhurst Art Museum, looking out at the snow. “I told myself I ain’t getting emotional, but it feels emotional when I hear that…” He makes a sudden drum roll on the table with his fingers and laughs. “It’s so close to God.”

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Teague is talking about the way Elvin Jones turns the drums into a pulsing wash of sound on John Coltrane’s classic 1965 album, A Love Supreme. The album is subject, inspiration and soundtrack for Teague’s new double exhibit of the same name, jointly curated by the artist and Rose Camara.

The first half of the show, in the Elmhurst Art Museum, encompasses four rooms of Teague’s artwork, loosely structured around the four movements of Coltrane’s album. The second exhibit, next door in the Mies van der Rohe-designed McCormick House, is a collection of works by thirty of Chicago’s BIPOC artists responding to either Coltrane or to other music that inspires them the way Teague is inspired by A Love Supreme. As the wall text asks, “What is your Coltrane story? Who awakened you personally and artistically?”

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When I ask Teague when he first connected with Coltrane’s most famous album, he replies not with a single incident, but with a kind of kaleidoscope of musical memory. He thinks he first heard the album at home with his parents. But he was also led to it by an uncle who was “quite enthusiastic about music,” as well as by older friends, by the radio, by Spike Lee’s impassioned proselytizing for jazz.

Teague’s Coltrane-inspired art reflects that sense of Coltrane as diffuse and omnipresent—someone who’s so much a part of the family and part of life that it’s hard to pin him down to any one place or meaning.

An art installation featuring sculptural works displayed in front of empty walls
An installation view of ‘A Love Supreme.’ Siegfried Mueller Photography

Many of Teague’s pieces incorporate a horn shape. Bulu Akosile AKA Blue Note, for example, created by Teague with ceramicist Francisca Villagrana, is a blue vase with a French horn bell rising out of it like an awkward honking flower. Roundhouse, is a circular hut of vertical wooden poles, with strings on the outside connected to pegs that look like guitar tuners. Walking inside feels like you’re entering an instrument, preparing to make sounds unknown. Jazz Minista AKA Jazz Cabinet is a large irregular box of scarred wood with holes in it. Lean over to look in, and you discover musical horns inside, secret and inaccessible. An older piece, 2017’s Zigzag Bookshelf, is what the title says—a big shelf in a zigzag pattern on the wall, with books (Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks, Ekow Eshu’s photography book Africa State of Mind, Penny Sparke’s Genius of Design) leaning precariously at a 45-degree angle to the floor.

Teague’s work is charming, surprising and welcoming, even though those are not necessarily the first words you’d associate with A Love Supreme, or with Coltrane’s experimental, spiritually questing work. Teague isn’t really representing Coltrane’s work in a different form so much as he’s making art about living in a world with Coltrane in it. “It’s my background music in the studio,” he says. “When I’m in the studio alone, it’s kind of like my shower time… Sade, Anita Baker, Teddy Pendergrass, all of that is playing in the background. You sit down in the studio, you get your cup of coffee and you tap on your music.”

The sense of Coltrane as a friendly, encouraging presence in conversation with other artists and other times is perhaps even stronger in the McCormack House show next door. The extensive catalogue, showcasing the work of thirty artists, prepares you for a sprawling exhibit.

But McCormack House itself is small and intimate, and when you step in you see not an overwhelming amount of art lining the walls but an arrangement of cozy objects and seating. Brian Keith Ellison’s F-A-F-B Collection is the first thing you see—four small sofa tables arranged on a white rug showing a musical staff so they recapitulate the famous four-note theme of Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement.” Off to the side is Max DavisEmbrace, an ash wood chair with a curved piece attached to the back so it gives a hug to whoever sits in it. Across the room is Edra Soto’s Graft (Fragment), a fence with O and X motifs inspired by Puerto Rican architectural elements.

A an artistically designed living room with a large painting hung over the couch
‘A Love Surpreme’ in the McCormick House. Siegfried Mueller Photography

In the catalog, each artist has included the name and QR code of a musical track that inspired or influenced them, and you can imagine the various objects chatting back and forth and sharing their musical recommendations—Iris Chacon’s “Yo te nombro” for Soto; Teddy Pendergrass’ “You Can’t Hide From Yourself” for Steve Bravo, whose black resin divided, vaguely muscle-shaped conversation piece Light & Heavy sits on a nearby table. Oluwaseyi Adeleke selected Nigerian artist Wizkid’s feel-good Afrobeat bounce “Ojuelegba”.

Adeleke’s “Hawker’s Crown,” located in a side room, is one of my favorite pieces in the exhibition because it nods to Coltrane formally before leaning off in its own direction. The piece is a plaster sculpture of plastic water bottles stacked in tiers. There are fewer bottles in each tier, so the top is just one bottle, reaching up towards the ceiling, preparing to take off for heavenly realms unknown in a way that Coltrane’s saxophone could relate to.

In the catalog, Adeleke says the piece is a tribute to his mother, who hawked wares (like water bottles) in Lagos when he was a child to make ends meet. The sculpture’s pop art-tinged aspiration is less about Coltrane-esque spiritual striving and more about the scrabble of capitalism and a mother’s hope for her children.

“There’s something about all of us together, something about a community of artists—it’s almost like a protest, but not a protest,” Teague told me. “Designing objects and thinking through them knowing that these other artists were showing all these beautiful works was constantly in the back of my head.” A Love Supreme positions Coltrane sometimes as forefather and sometimes as influence. But it also sees him as another artist in a community of artists, building on each other or near each other by virtue of being in the same space and the same family.

One of Teague’s most striking pieces is a large wall with folds like a paper fan on which are printed the words “RACE ACRE CARE.” Blackness, space, love—that’s not a bad distillation of Coltrane’s aesthetic. Other pieces in the exhibit don’t evoke A Love Supreme quite so directly, but finding the flexibility in love and tradition is a way to honor Coltrane, too.

A Love Supreme” is on view at Elmhurst Art Museum through April 28.

A Look Inside ‘A Love Supreme’ at Chicago’s Elmhurst Art Museum