I hadn’t heard of James Bolivar Needham until a couple months ago when a short article in the Sun-Times mentioned an upcoming exhibit at the Chicago Maritime Museum (which I’d also never heard of) featuring some unattributed Chicago riverscapes believed to be painted by him.

Turns out Needham was a Black painter who worked on ships in Chicago around the turn of the 20th Century and made these pictures in his off-hours, often painting them on the backs of crate sides. They grabbed me right away because of the sensitivity of brushstroke and the subtlety of tone. They look like they were hung on the wall fresh from the easel yesterday, were it not for the old architecture and vessels depicted.

Not much is known about Needham. He was born in Canada in 1850 at one of the termini of the Underground Railroad. He worked various low-level jobs around Chicago and helped with decorations for the 1893 World’s Fair. He died after inhaling smoke trying to rescue his paintings from a fire that destroyed his studio in 1931.

I went to the Chicago Maritime Museum—which turns out to be a few rooms of ship and shipping artifacts in the basement of the Bridgeport Art Center—and looked at what are likely Needham’s little paintings of ships in the harbor. He rarely signed his paintings which accounts for why these aren’t attributed to him. The curator is convinced they are his and I can’t disagree. I looked up every image of his online and the ones in this exhibit look like they were done by the same hand.

I pitched an article to my editor at the Reader but wasn’t met with too much enthusiasm. Still, I queried the Chicago History Museum about taking a look at their collection of Needhams—they have more than any other institution. A month or two later their curator wrote with a link to some of their holdings but rejected the idea of letting me see them in person. The reason given was lack of staff and the low priority of my request.

I’m not important enough to waste time or resources on according to her. Fair enough. I’ll have to admire Needham’s work through screens for now.

I feel kinship with this guy I’ll never get to know. He documented modes of transportation around Chicago like I have a hundred years later. I rarely sign my paintings either. Maybe one day a future painter will be refused entrance to a crypt holding the remains of my work.

I’ll watch and laugh about it from my nook in Hell.

I wrote about an amazing storefront Hamlet and an awful Flannery O’Connor biopic.

I read a 1950 essay by Willem De Kooning included in a tiny book I bought from the collection of Tom Verlaine into a microphone.