Monday, December 14, 2009

The Community as Studio

Guest Blogger:
Jim Duignan
Artist and Associate Professor of Visual Art in the School of Education at DePaul University

A studio space has been a tremendous lure for me for a long time. I roamed Chicago neighborhoods in the late 1970s and early 1980s imagining all types of spaces to live and work. I wanted desperately to get on with something, to find that space where I could work out my ideas quietly. I graduated from high school in 1976 and set my sights on the area between Belmont and Cicero and Addison and Pulaski over the next ten years as an ideal site to live / work. I had gone to school down the street and spent my formative years on Waveland between Kedvale and Pulaski. My first studio was off Belmont at Barry, backed up to the mammoth Hall printing company to the west and in ear shot of Joe Danno’s Bucket of Suds.

My youth was immersed in the studio practices of printmaking, drawing, painting and some writing of poetry.  I had these old newspaper photographs depicting influences like Brecht, Rodchenko, Erwitt, Beuys and Friedkin where they worked that became a blueprint. My early years were fixed on a space functioning as a hideout of sorts, separating me from the very life that secured a powerfully dangerous grip on me.  Chicago was speckled with structures and architectural reminders to indelible memories of labor, family lore, regional history, taverns and sites of dynamic musical experiences. I was born and raised in Chicago and attended Archdiocese and Chicago Public Schools and realized later in life that the physical connection I had to those school structures would return often as I sought out large, multi-purposed spaces for projects and programs for the Stockyard Institute.

My early studios were my entire apartments until I met Celeste, my friend and partner for the last twenty five years.  I recall the second floor at 1111 W. Chicago at Milwaukee and Ogden over the 1111 Grill. The smell of the Gonella Bread factory, hints of chocolate and the frying bacon coming up through the floors created a kind of focus. One that would constantly reference the city itself.  Summers were magical with floor to ceiling windows and the warm breezes carrying those smells and the steady sounds of traffic with an accompaniment from the subway underneath the building creating light intermittent vibrations. The place like so many were wrecks, with only shower plumbing, animals, outdoor furniture, psychotic tenants and the $25 a week rent laying claim to grand experimentations on every surface on the apartment. I worked on oversized drawings and dark paintings attempting to sketch out tales of desperation and redemption. My work modeled a family history as a subject and a content that was grounded deeper in memory than cause. I found a clearer connection to film and photography and making notes made enormous sense in those days. 

The idea of a studio changed for me after I did my MFA in Chicago (UIC) and considered how the stories I wanted to share would translate in a gallery. I wanted to work and show that work where I gathered. To see how communities could fit into a larger idea of work that was changing towards a broader exchange of ideas and intention. Thinking about ways of responding and learning, and the kind of city I wanted to live in would develop early in the Back of the Yards and through long intentional conversations with Michael Piazza. Moving beyond the galleries and the studio worked to open up opportunities in the early 1990s for exploring the street corner, public park, car wash or abandoned school. There was a desire to find a platform that many could work within as a collective of teachers, youth, artists, musicians, writers, parents, actors, producers working to build temporary public projects, radio based efforts and sustainable programs that would intersect some component of the community institutions.

Pedagogy of a more radicalized nature entered in as my DePaul University art and education students clearly brought an understanding to public service and community work through many forms of dynamic and creative enterprises. We looked upon education as a mission and we drafted curriculum. We shared writings of Studs Turkel and Saul Alinsky who mapped city history through social consciousness as educators like Paulo Friere and Myles Horton offered manuals to a liberatory track in which to refocus on a culture of schooling that clearly sought to challenge systems that functioned to exclude the voiceless. The Back of the Yards community and later the Austin neighborhood served as valuable incubators to bring community members into a collective and social approach to art making and writing. Area teachers began to aid in the design of projects in the Back of the Yards and would encourage their students to join in as youth had always been a focus to our conversations and brand of work. I was asked to assist a small school in the community at 48th and Damen with an art curriculum for students they had yet to identify from neighborhood drop out lists in 1995. There was an experiment taking place in reasonable, site specific schooling which initiated sound ideas about inclusion. This invitation settled us into the neighborhood. An opportunity to convert an abandoned elementary school into a socially based arts center and working with local gang members shaped a core philosophy of the Stockyard Institute early on as an artist project and burgeoning experimental teaching collective. 

The Stockyard Institute began in the Back of the Yards with youth under the Stockyard Truck Stop sign on south Halsted in 1995. Our design for how we would develop and realize projects would synchronize with a design for a broader community curriculum we were organizing through the school and with a community space called Neutral Ground run by Gene and Sandy Downes. We had large temporary spaces to work. This approach was instrumental in setting up the conditions for conversation with the youth and community members to determine projects based on a collective set of questions. It would become a Brechtian armature to repurpose a studio practice that transformed a larger community space into a neighborhood - specific studio for social investigation and imagination. We designed a gang proof suit based on those initial conversations with the youth who were consumed with gang activity in their neighborhood. The suit became our model for future productions and with local residents and the quiet consul of Michael Piazza and thirteen youth who where part of the Homeless Education Program through the Chicago Public Schools we organized that first year. I asked over 100 local artists to propose works for the new school at 48th and Damen as I moved into the abandoned school next door with Neutral Ground, the University of Hip Hop, Temporary Services and local writers. The sonic efforts of Jeff Kowalkowski were extraordinary and important to the site and musical education of local youth. 

Those large, temporary structures were critical to get youth off the street and work isolated away from all types of pressures. Space was critical early and remains the case today as we are situated in and through a host of spaces as Michelle Grabner referred to as the ‘quieter quadrants’ of the city. It has also been most important to develop and maintain long term relationships with actors, builders, designers, teachers, filmmakers, writers, residents and artists to explore work together and find a collective, innovative spirit of working in each others studios, spaces and communities towards mutually beneficial processes. After fifteen years those youth are adults and early education students teach and administrate programs, international efforts and local schools. This has established a wonderfully circulatory and participatory energy that has developed a constellation of activity around contemporary art, radical pedagogy, public media and progressive community education all over the city. 

Jim Duignan is an artist and Associate Professor of Visual Art in the School of Education at DePaul University. He founded the Stockyard Institute in 1995 in the Back of the Yards which dovetails a public artist project with an experimental teaching collective. 

Images: Jim Duignan in his studio; Cafeteria Sessions with Lavie Raven; Zawadi Radio Project

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