March 1, 2023

University’s Toni Morrison Exhibitions Put the Creative Process on Display

CREATIVITY AND MEMORY: A series of exhibitions, performances, and events celebrating and exploring the life and creative process of Toni Morrison, Nobel laureate and former Princeton University professor, kicked off last week. (Photo by Princeton University, Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy)

By Donald Gilpin

Toni Morrison, Nobel laureate and a former Princeton University professor who died in 2019, is making her presence felt in multiple powerful exhibitions and events honoring her work and her memory in Princeton over the coming months.

“Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory,” an exhibition of more than 100 items from the University’s archives, opened last Wednesday in the Princeton University Library’s Milberg Gallery, and last Saturday saw the opening of “Cycle of Creativity: Alison Saar and the Toni Morrison Papers,” an art exhibit at the Princeton Art Museum’s Art@Bainbridge on Nassau Street.

“In all, the ambitious initiative suggests the enormous influence that Morrison had not only on Princeton — where she taught for 17 years beginning in 1989, later lending her name to Morrison Hall, home to the school’s Department of African American Studies — but also on the culture of American life,” states a University press release.

The Milberg Gallery exhibition includes several rooms displaying Morrison’s manuscript drafts, letters, photographs, a two-hour video interview from 1987, and other items that the University acquired in 2014. Objects for this exhibit have been drawn from nearly 400 boxes of material collected by Morrison and now owned by the Princeton University Library.

There are yellow sheets from legal pads on which she sketched out character diagrams and relationships, designs for plot sequences, and drafts of text. There are detailed genealogies for the characters from Beloved, Post-it notes, day planners with lines of dialogue, and a screenplay for Tar Baby, which later became a novel.

There are outlines of The Bluest Eye, her first published novel; drafts of Song of Solomon; and hand drawn maps of Ruby, the fictional center of her novel Paradise. There are letters from her editors discussing drafts of her novels, an array of photographs, including one of Morrison as a student actor at Howard University playing a role in Shakespeare’s King Lear, and a striking, spirited letter from the legendary singer Nina Simone.

The “Sites of Memory” exhibit is divided into six sections, not so much chronological as thematic, moving freely through time and space, in the manner of Morrison’s novels. Throughout the six sections —Beginnings, Writing Time, Thereness-ness, Wonderings and Wanderings, Genealogies of Black Feminism,and Speculative Futures — the emphasis is on Morrison’s creative process as it evolves from memory and deep research.

“I’ve written on scraps of paper, in hotels on hotel stationery, in automobiles: If it arrives, you know. If you know it really has come, then you have to put it down,” Morrison wrote in her 1993 The Art of Fiction, as quoted in the exhibit.

In its brochure about the exhibition the Library states, “In its breadth, the collection invites us to consider how history, memory, and the literary imagination relate to one another anew.”

In Art@Bainbridge across Nassau Street from the University Library, Los Angeles-based artist Alison Saar has taken inspiration from Morrison’s archives to create sculptures, prints, and textiles exploring themes of music, work, spiritual practices, and ancestry as elements of the Black American experience.

Particularly prominent in both Morrison’s writing and in Saar’s work are the lives and experiences of Black women, as the past, present, and future interweave.

“As can be seen throughout these galleries, the practices of Saar and Morrison are rooted in Black history,” the exhibition brochure states. “They call on ancestors, both the named and the unknown, not in order to impose a historical viewpoint but rather to define a space for present and future generations of African American artists, writers, thinkers, and creators to see themselves represented and to imagine their own voices.”

Additional Toni Morrison-related events coming up include a USPS-sponsored Toni Morrison Forever Stamp dedication ceremony on March 7 at 11 a.m. in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus; a three-day symposium on Toni Morrison and the Archive, featuring prominent scholars, writers, and artists, March 23-25, taking place mostly in the Lewis Center for the Arts; a Toni Morrison Workshop at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre Rehearsal Room on March 24 and 25, with performance artists Daniel Alexander Jones and Mame Diarra Samantha Speis presenting original work reflecting on Morrison’s influence; Toni Morrison Lectures by Farah Jasmine March 28-30 at 5 p.m. in McCosh 10; and a newly commissioned work inspired by the Toni Morrison Archives composed and performed by Cecile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner on April 12 at 6 and 9 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium.

The Milberg Gallery “Sites of Memory” exhibit continues through June 4. “Cycle of Creativity” at Art@Bainbridge runs through July 9. All the March 23-25 symposium events are currently sold out, with the possibility of more seats becoming available. The April 12 Princeton University Concerts performances are also sold out.

“It is difficult to overstate the importance of Toni Morrison’s writing to American literature, art, and life,” said Autumn Womack, Princeton University associate professor of English and African American Studies, who curated the “Sites of Memory” exhibition. “This exhibition draws us toward the unexplored corners of her writing process and unknown aspects of her creative investments that only live in this archive.”