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Poets of Action: The Saint Louis Black Artists' Group, 1968-1972 (Part 1-4)

By Published: December 19, 2004

Eventually the cultural enrichment center component of the grant and the Artist-in- Residence component came to operate independently. Katherine Dunham proceeded with her cultural enrichment centers in East St. Louis, while the BAG-AIR group developed different goals and objectives. "The St. Louis group went for younger artists, mostly local," reported Norman Lloyd, the Rockefeller Foundation's director of arts programs, in June 1969; "These younger artists do not want to accept Katherine Dunham's role as leader, since they want to develop their own style. ... The program, therefore, has been split into two parts-one for St. Louis and one for East St. Louis."

As BAG expanded its membership and received more funding, the group was able to move into its own building, complete with living quarters, performance space, and a teaching area. By July 1969, the BAG-AIR group had obtained (for a nominal annual rent of one dollar) a building on Washington Avenue, located several blocks from the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. The building would serve as a center and site for classes. Monsanto soon renovated one first-floor room for the group; another room served as space for theater and dance workshops, rehearsals, and classes. Upstairs was a huge loft, ideal for a painting studio. "Twenty four hours [a day] for the next several years, you could walk into the BAG building and something would be going on," Malinke Elliott recalls of the nonstop teaching, rehearsing, and performing that took place at the center.

BAG members instructed young, mostly African-American aspiring artists over the course of several years at the center, usually averaging an enrollment of about fifty students at any given time. The teaching staff came to include Bruce Rutlin (creative writing), Georgia Collins (dance), Thurman Falk (film), and Emilio Cruz (visual arts), in addition to the BAG musicians and actors. Elliott's sister Marian Hill, BAG's staff secretary, served as the center's "house mother," proctoring the students and helping them to solve problems such as lack of money for instruments and books. Successful musicians such as clarinetist/saxophonist Marty Ehrlich and guitarist Kelvyn Bell, both now playing in New York, emerged from the BAG classes, as well as other artists such as poets Michael and Jan Castro.

Continue to Part 2...

Photo Credits:
Oliver Lake playing soprano: Photo 2001 by Roscoe Crenshaw
J.D. Parran: Photo 2001 by Roscoe Crenshaw
Julius Hemphill/Floyd LeFlore: Photo ca. 1969, courtesy Oliver Lake
Cast of a BAG play: ca. 1969, courtesy Oliver Lake

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