Skip to main content

Now on View in the North Forest: Slowly Toward the North by Richard Hunt

a steel gray sculpture shaped like a train engine and wheel on the bottom with a scythe shape on top sitting on a platform surrounded by a lush green forest
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will be closed Monday, May 13, to prepare for the visit of Antiques Roadshow. We will return to normal hours of operation Wednesday, May 15.

Slowly Toward the North (1984), a sculpture now on view in Crystal Bridges’ North Forest, commemorates the Great Migration, the large movement of Black Americans from the rural South to cities in the North from 1918-1970.

The work combines two symbolically significant forms: a train and a push plow. The train form emerges from the steam locomotive’s driving wheels and front-end cowcatcher whose components present themselves prominently in the work. Viewed from the opposing side, the work recalls the forms of stylized handles, handlebars, plowshare and wheel of a push plow cultivator used by Hunt in the South when visiting family. The two primary elements point in opposite directions; the locomotive faces north, an allusion to the mode of transportation that brought many Black southerners to the industrial North. The plow points toward the agrarian South, representing the human labor (rather than animal or machines) used to till the earth.


a rusted steel sculpture shaped like a train engine and wheel on the bottom with a scythe shape on top
Slowly Toward the North (1984) plow view.
a black and white photograph of a young black boy dressed in a cap and overalls pushing a hand plow in a field
A sharecropper’s son pushes a hand plow in the rural South.

One of Hunt’s formative influences developed from the friendship he struck with the Chilean Surrealist painter Roberta Matta who served as a visiting professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954. Slowly Toward the North demonstrates the Surrealist aim of combining forms to evoke subconscious associations and challenge the viewer’s reason. In fact, Hunt’s full title of the sculpture is Slowly Toward the North as the Arcs Multiply after Tanguy. This informative extended title invokes the Surrealist masterpiece of Tanguy’s Multiplication of the Arcs completed in 1954, the same year that Hunt studied under Matta. Hunt’s personal collection of African artifacts, including throwing knives, daggers, and swords, may also be seen in the angles, curves, points, and bladed forms.

This welded steel sculpture is unlike a great number of Hunt’s studio created works which often stem from improvisation. Slowly Toward the North is a meticulously considered and constructed work. This method was necessary to achieve the resulting surrealistic hybrid. The process of planning and the visual evolution of this work may be traced across a series of sketches contained in Hunt’s archive.

Hunt’s choice of material, Cor-Ten, resulted from attending the unveiling of the monumental Chicago Picasso in 1967. Picasso, another foundational influence, also used Cor-Ten to create sculpture exhibiting the characteristics of Surrealism.


a sketch of a sculpture shaped like a train engine and wheel on the bottom with a scythe shape on top
Slowly Toward the North (1984) Marker Sketch.
a rusted steel abstract sculpture on a platform in an art gallery
Richard Hunt, Field Section (1972, Detroit Institute of Arts Collection).
a rusted steel sculpture in the shape of a wheelbarrow and a car bumper
Richard Hunt, The Greatest Obstacle (1975, Smithsonian American Art Museum Collection).
a black and white photograph of a rusted steel abstract sculpture
Richard Hunt, Farmer's Dream (1980, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Collection).

The artist, placing this sculpture in context, said of this work, “The plow series of works grew out of my family’s history and childhood experiences on family farms. Field Section (1972, Detroit Institute of Arts Collection), The Greatest Obstacle (1975, Smithsonian American Art Museum Collection) and Slowly Toward the North (1984) took shape from various plows while Farmer’s Dream (1980, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Collection) focused on the plowshare itself. My grandfather was a sharecropper in rural Georgia and my father worked the fields with him before heading north in the Great Migration. Growing up in Chicago, I visited my cousins still in Georgia, where I picked cotton and tobacco, and walked behind the plow with my father.”

Trains are deeply significant to Hunt. They carried some of Hunt’s family to Chicago from the South and represented both the progress of African Americans and the promise of the industrial North. Pullman Porters, the former slaves hired to work on the railroads to attend to the sleeping cars, were part of the developing African American middle class in Chicago.


During the 1940s, in Englewood on the South side of Chicago, local porters would visit Hunt’s Barbershop to get a haircut and have their shoes shined. As a young boy working in his father’s barbershop, Richard Hunt would sweep hair and shine the shoes of the Pullman Porters. In a 2021 visit to Hunt’s Chicago studio, Michelle Obama and Richard Hunt discussed how their families’ homes had been just blocks away. Michelle Obama’s great grandfather was a Pullman Porter and her family attended the same A.M.E church in Woodlawn as the Hunt family. In 2015, Barack Obama, during the Pullman National Monument Designation Ceremony, gave credit to A. Philip Randolph (founder of the first all-Black union) and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for helping pave the way for him to become the first African American president.


a row of black train conductors in uniform with caps and shined shoes standing in front of a train car
Pullman Porters with shoes shined, reporting for work.
a steel gray sculpture shaped like a train engine and wheel on the bottom with a scythe shape on top sitting on a platform surrounded by a lush green forest
Richard Hunt, Slowly Toward the North, 1984, welded Cor-Ten steel, 59"H x 34"W x 84"D, Exhibited at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Private Collection.

All aspects of the sculpture’s citing and installation at Crystal Bridges included collaboration with the artist. Especially important to Hunt was the orientation of the sculpture with the train form pointing North. Slowly Toward the North has been exhibited in the Century City Sculpture Walk, Los Angeles, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, and the Museum of African American History, Detroit. This installation at Crystal Bridges marks the first time that this monument, which recalls the Great Migration, has been exhibited in the South. The sculptor, remarking on the uniqueness of this installation, said, “This pleases me very much.”

About Richard Hunt

Born in Chicago in 1935, world-renowned sculptor Richard Hunt has singularly made the largest contribution to public art in the United States; over 150 public sculpture commissions grace prominent locations in 24 states and Washington DC. Hunt has held over 150 solo exhibitions and is represented in more than 100 public museums across the globe, from California to Maine, Detroit to Birmingham, and Vienna to Jerusalem.

A descendant of slaves brought to this country through the port of Savannah, Georgia, Hunt grew up on the South Side of Chicago, first in Woodlawn and then Englewood. He was immersed in the cultural and artistic heritage of Chicago through art lessons at the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) and the Junior School of the Art Institute of Chicago, regular visits to Chicago’s major public museums, and graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). As a 19-year-old at the SAIC, Hunt taught himself how to weld. Only two years later in 1957, he gained national recognition when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York acquired his sculpture, Arachne.

While serving in the US Army, stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, Hunt became a civil rights hero when he desegregated the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Alamo Plaza on March 16, 1960. This brave action made San Antonio the first peaceful and voluntary lunch counter integration in the South. Hunt was the first African American visual artist to serve on the National Council on the Arts, appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. In 1971, Hunt was the first African American sculptor to be given a retrospective at MoMA. In addition, in 1981, Hunt served as one of eight jurors, the sole African American, for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition in Washington DC.

Hunt has sculpted major monuments for some of our country’s greatest heroes, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, Hobart Taylor, Jr. and Ida B. Wells. His sculptures have commemorated events from the slave trade and the Middle Passage to the Great Migration. His massive 30-foot, 1,500-pound bronze, Swing Low, hangs from the ceiling of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a monument to the African American Spiritual. Today, Hunt’s masterpiece, Hero Construction, stands as the centerpiece of the Art Institute of Chicago. And in this year, 2022, Barack Obama commissioned Richard Hunt as the first artist to create a work for the Obama Presidential Center.


At 87 years old, Hunt has created sculpture for nearly seven decades. During that time, Hunt has received 16 honorary degrees and served on over two dozen boards, committees, and councils, including serving as a Commissioner for the National Museum of American Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution. Hunt has also received more than 30 major awards including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center, the Fifth Star Award from the City of Chicago, and the Legends and Legacy Award from the Art Institute of Chicago. Richard Hunt, still working from his studio in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, is one of our country’s greatest living artists. His recently released, fully illustrated volume, Richard Hunt, is now available for purchase.