Besides the video cameras following his every move, it was a normal day at work for Joseph McLemore.
There were clumps of hair falling to the floor, conversations about girls and sports, and barbers working with, as McLemore says, “the precision of doctors.”
“That’s what you do at Joe’s Barbershop — you socialize and make people look fresh,” McLemore, who has owned the shop on Harrison Street for 49 years, said. “Each haircut is very important.”
And on Saturday, each haircut served as a piece of art.
Joe’s Barbershop is the focus of an upcoming exhibit at the Figge Art Museum put together by Chicago-based artist Jefferson Pinder. Pinder offered free haircuts to customers on Friday and Saturday while shooting video and taking photos at the barbershop.
“It’s like a reality show at the barbershop today,” Nick Thompson, who has worked at Joe's for six years, said. "We're not used to that."
Thompson, who describes his boss as “unique, dedicated, trustworthy and someone who wants to help his community,” said he’s not surprised by the star treatment.
“He’s a figure of the community and a pillar of being positive, not negative,” Thompson said. “He’s a real guy and a good guy. That’s something you want to see in a museum.”
‘Not a book about it’
When the Figge Art Museum hired Pinder to capture the African-American experience in the Quad-Cities, he didn’t know where to start.
Pinder, a Chicago-based artist, had only visited the Quad-Cities a few times.
At one point during his past year of research, somebody told him to go to Joe’s Barbershop.
“After five minutes with this guy, you can tell the community needs to hear from him,” Pinder said. “He’s one of those gatekeepers. He’s been here for all these years and he’s seen the community change and progress.”
Pinder has spent several months of the last year in the Quad-Cities and plans to stay here until February to finish up his exhibit, which is called “Ghost Light”. It will run March 4 to June 4. He is also designing a piece around Rock Island activist Virgil Mayberry.
“I started out with this big question of ‘How do you unravel the African-American experience in the Quad-Cities?’ and, you know, there’s not a book about it,” Pinder said. “I think you have to look at individuals who know the community really well and give them the platform."
That makes for an exhibit that’s not typical for the Figge, Pinder said.
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“These museums tend to ignore people that are right in front of them,” he said. “The idea is to show a slice of the community that’s hidden and that people forget about.”
'Like a home'
If anything, McLemore, wants young people, especially young people of color, to see “Ghost Light” and think that anything is possible.
“I hope it gives people inspiration,” he said. “I started off cutting hair to take care of my family and I’m still here all these years later. I’m proud of that.”
McLemore is also proud of the sense of community he has built here, a place where nobody is a stranger, that other barbers describe as a brotherhood and man cave, and where a simple haircut can make someone’s day, or even, "bring somebody back from the dead," Thompson said.
“When you walk in Joe’s Barbershop, you’re accepted no matter what,” McLemore said. “It’s an upbeat place where nobody is a stranger. It’s not just a place for haircuts; it's like a home.”
That was clear to Pinder on Saturday. He hopes "Ghost Light" brings new people to the Figge and that the exhibit shines a light on Joe's Barbershop.
“What goes on in this barbershop is a real human experience and worth talking about," Pinder said. "When people leave here, they feel better about themselves. That's magical in a way."