Montgomery Place resident uses art, journaling to retain and share inspirational reflections

Montgomery Place resident Bill Gnatz uses art and journaling as inspirational memory aids. His works are on display in the art gallery at Montgomery Place, 5550 South Shore Drive, through the end of January. – Photo by Montgomery Place

In the 1960s, Montgomery Place resident Bill Gnatz saw the transformation of Woodrow Wilson Junior College from a school enrolling mostly Caucasian students to Kennedy-King College, now serving students of all races. During the civil rights era, he became instrumental in transforming the curriculum to include African-American history as well as other social science courses focusing on African-American issues.

He also marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., here in Chicago and in, Selma, Ala. “It was a very exciting time,” said Gnatz, who retired from a 30-year career as an assistant professor for City Colleges of Chicago. He also taught in Ghana for one year.

“I was raised in a white family, but I came to see, we are all just wearing masks that say we are white, black or red,” he said. “We’re really all the same.”

Gnatz recently sat next to a pastel drawing he created of a man’s head colored one-third white, one third black and one third red. “It’s a self-portrait,” he said, while surrounded by several of his other works, including water color paintings, graphite pencil sketches and small bronze sculptures. The items are on display through the end of January in the art gallery at Montgomery Place, 5550 South Shore Drive.

Gnatz, a widower who resides in an assisted living apartment, recently turned 90. About two years ago, he started experiencing challenges with short-term memory. “I’d have a thought about something recent, and just couldn’t recall it,” he said.

Gnatz found a way retain his inspirational reflections by writing them down in a journal. He also draws pencil sketches of daily life at Montgomery Place and other familiar scenes: he’s sketched a wheelbarrow used by resident gardeners, a garden bench, a water glass and a Linden tree.

“The creative process has always mystified me,” he said. “When I create something, it feels fantastic.”

Gnatz’s earlier bronze figurines of humans and horses draw inspiration from Joe Brown, a sculptor of American athletes. He’s also created tile mosaics and jewelry, though these are not on display.

To help Gnatz keep his creative juices flowing, the Montgomery Place resident art committee invited him to display his works of art for the enjoyment of fellow residents and visitors.

The art committee not only oversees Montgomery Place gallery installations, it also organizes an annual “art walk” in which residents can open their apartments for other residents to discuss art they’ve created or collected.

Gnatz continues to study art. He takes an art class taught by a School of the Art Institute of Chicago instructor in Montgomery Place’s art studio. He also attends an art class every other Friday at the Art Center of Highland Park when visiting with his daughter, Wendy Morgan.

Gnatz moved to Montgomery Place in January 2017 after living for 20 years in Minneapolis. Even so, he still considers himself a Hyde Parker. Prior to moving to Minneapolis, he lived on the 4800 South block of Lake Shore Drive. Gnatz completed graduate work at the University of Chicago, earning a master’s degree in history and a second divisional master’s through the university’s committee on social thought. He earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Princeton University.

Montgomery Place resident artist