A traveling exhibit that gathers more than 75 of artist Romare Bearden’s works arrived at the Chicago Cultural Center this month, allowing a fascinating glimpse of the worlds created by one of the 20th century’s most important black visual artists.

Born in 1911 in North Carolina, Bearden grew up in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance and visited his grandparent’s house in the rural south. He was a person of superior intelligence and varied interests.

Bearden pitched for a baseball team in the minor leagues. He also composed music and wrote poetry. After graduating from New York University, Bearden earned a paycheck for the next 25 years as a social worker, while pursuing his interest in art as an artist – he studied the masters in Paris while there on the GI bill in the 1950s. Bearden, who died in 1988, was also an advocate and was influential in building the arts community in Harlem at a time when black artists where not shown in galleries.

The exhibit, “From Process to Print”, covers Bearden’s work from the ’60s on, starting with his collages and following him as he mixed in watercolor, printmaking and etching. Bearden’s subjects mainly inhabit the two worlds he was brought up in, and he often crams his works full of faces.

In “The Family” Bearden shows an oversize man at a dinner table is flanked by his wife and child. Each element is etched as if unconnected to the others – body parts not always to scale – replicating a collage. Patterns crowd some areas while others are left open. But this forms only half the completed work. The print also has a layer of aquatint, a process similar to etching, but instead of lines produces areas of color. Together, the image has a collage-like quality of being pieced together, but not in the manner that it was.

The exhibit displays several of Bearden’s works dissected into their parts. This allows viewers to see Bearden’s artistic process but also to witness him at play.

In “Out Chorus,” again a combination of etching and aquatint, the viewer is behind a jazz band that is all halftone dots, lines and simple vibrant colors. Working proofs of the two layers are also hung – the black and white lines and patterns of the etching, and the vibrant color blocks of the pattern-less aquatint – giving three versions of the same vision.

The intrigue of this body of work is not just in its visual complexity, but also in its point of view. As a black man growing up in Jim Crow America, Bearden very much wanted to show his world. In channeling his life’s perspective in such a visually arresting manner way, it’s clear that Bearden succeeded. His work is a treasure.

If you go

From Process to Print: Graphic Works by Romare Bearden