Fairfield Academy, a Chicago Public School
Chicagoans see a lot of stories being written about our problems. Even my favorite lefty sources of information seem to delight in reporting the bad news here in Chicago. The right-wing of this country unabashedly point to our children’s suffering to make cheap political points at our civic expense, completely oblivious to their transparent disregard for the children they supposedly care about. They love to call it Obama’s city, even though we’ve had ridiculously high homicide counts all through the Reagan, Clinton and Bush years. They make moronic statements about our strict gun laws not working (even though the majority of the guns on the streets were purchased legally by dirt bags who make illegal transactions with our gang leaders, thank you for not doing a background check at the gun show!)I could go on…
As a lifelong Chicagoan, I’m at an all time high on the frustration meter. I’m tired of all of the negativity, I’m tired of the boorish contingent of people, a lot of them Chicagoans themselves, who do nothing but criticize from their sofas at home, and I especially wish the folks with the “it’s not my problem, I don’t live in that neighborhood” syndrome would just shut up the next time they want to spout some more disingenuous bile about “the good old days”… their nostalgic fantasies of when Chicago “was a safe place to be”. Anyways, I thought it would be nice to highlight some of the more awesome things our kids are working on for a change, so please forgive the rant.
The children who have to navigate and inhabit the neighborhoods where violence is common have constantly been shortchanged an opportunity to speak for themselves. I’ve devoted a large portion of my professional artistic life in these communities, with the belief that local participation in the arts gives under served public school children a chance to be seen and heard in a positive way, to think critically, and to mold a positive blueprint for meaningful social change on their own block. I started teaching about a dozen years ago, and as a white southwest sider, I came with a lot of the racial baggage that accompanies the territory, although I didn’t necessarily know it right away. It’s revealed itself over time, it still does. I’ve not only gotten a chance to work with some fantastic students over the years, I’ve come to recognize my own ingrained shortcomings and realize that I had a lot of room to grow as well. Combined with that and the fact that my teaching life has evolved into an almost daily form of civically minded social practice, I’ve created an extension of my studio practice that allows me to tackle art making in a different manner than my usual way of painting. One of my idols is Tim Rollins and KOS, and he described his experience of teaching and art making with his “Kids of Survival” as him being “the conductor, the kids are the orchestra”. That’s where I try to take my cue from, in every residency I work in.
This is my documentation from a 16 week, 32 visit Urban Gateways residency at Fairfield Academy CPS on 62nd and Fairfield, in the Marquette Park neighborhood. Growing up in the Back of the Yards until I was 16 years old, I lived through and endured many of the destructive consequences of living in a “white flight” neighborhood. My own grandfather, who lived below us at 53rd and Winchester,had to explain to us when I was 11 years old that the landlord of our building had just asked if it would be possible for our whole family to move as soon as possible. My grandfather had to explain that moving at that time would be almost impossible… my grandmother was bed ridden, my own dad was unemployed and gambling all of our money away at the time. Then my grandfather said something I couldn’t wrap my head around: The landlord wanted us to move because he wanted to torch the building. He said because black people were moving on the block, his building would be worth more money from burning it down than trying to salvage or resell it. This was my first lesson in institutionalized racism. Marquette Park though, has historically represented all that was wrong with our city’s general attitude towards integration. Martin Luther King suffered a concussion from a brick thrown by a white mob counter-protesting his “open housing” march there in 1965. The American Nazi Party opened shop in the neighborhood. By the late 1980s though, most of the white people had fled. Whether it be from the economic consequences of racist home insurance policies, or just plain old hatred of people that weren’t white, integration would never be given a fair shake in this neighborhood, along with dozens of other areas on the south side of Chicago.
I never realized just how segregated Chicago really was until I was 19 years old and made my first pilgrimage to my version of Mecca, New York City, in 1989. I’ve always been enamored with NYC, as far back as watching King Kong climb the Empire State as a toddler. As a teenager, graffiti turned me on to street art, so I learned about how these young, interracial groups of kids from the hood were starting to be shown in art galleries around the world. That in turn, turned me on to contemporary art, and the rest is history. But almost all of my artistic heroes hailed from the Big Apple. Hip Hop and graffiti art saved my life, like thousands of others from around the world. Graffiti allowed me to make friends with kids from every neighborhood in my own city, and I freely traveled to any area where I could hang out with the like-minded. One of the problems with Chicago and it’s youth (and many of it’s grown ups) is they never venture out of the neighborhood, so I deliberately chose NYC as our starting ground in this residency.
"THE WORD: HIP HOP CULTURE AND CONTEMPORARY ART IN THE 1980s" was the title of my residency. I had one class each of fifth grade, sixth grade and eighth graders study how the "high" and "low" art worlds connected during that very important decade. A lot of their parents are from the 80s generation, so I didn’t want to go back too far in time, plus I used Hip Hop as my hook. Through a series of power point presentations, we looked at socially conscious artworks by Jon Fekner and photos by Mel Rosenthal. We focused on subway graffiti art by Lee Quinones, who was a pioneer of using meaningful visual metaphors in his work. We had a segment devoted to Jean Michel Basquiat, and we talked about youth and race. Amongst all of the artists we looked at though, I focused most heavily on the collaborations between Sandra Fabara and Jenny Holzer. Fabara is better known as Lady Pink, a legendary subway graffiti writer. I felt it was really important to present a female face on not only art, but on Hip Hop as well. The collaborations between Holzer and Pink occurred during a time when both artists were creating street works with a social purpose.
Lady Pink modeling a Jenny Holzer Tshirt, 1984
The T-shirt idea is based on this collaboration. Two artists from completely different sides of the art world’s spectrum, yet united in their feminism, social concerns and their prolific street/public work. After viewing the above photo, I simply asked the kids if they knew who the perpetrator was, who was it that was “abusing power?”
Several of my students offered up real life stories, particularly my 6th and 8th grade artists. Things you’d expect from that age… Stories of bad teachers, of power struggles at home with parents and siblings, but most alarmingly, lots of stories of unwarranted police searches and other kids of harassment. After viewing several of Holzer’s “Marquee Signs”, I asked how they felt about this one:
The classroom stayed quiet. “Soft” was not a cool word to them. They deconstructed it’s meaning. They turned it inside out. “Is this a message that would do well if it was seen in this neighborhood?” I asked. “I don’t think people would get it at first” but “it might be a good idea to try it”.
Another marquee had the sentence “Savor kindness, because cruelty can always come later”.
Again, silence. Until one of my kids raised his hand and said, “Make you think”.
And that’s what it’s all about.
Big thank you to Karl Kuhn who helped me document this project (and responsible for the pictures without dates imprinted in them). Karl also videotaped a large portion of this residency, a project to be completed on it’s own. I must also thank Fairfield Academy staff, and Urban Gateways, for giving me this opportunity to return to the same school and work with the same kids over a four year span… it really makes a difference.