"Quickening," by Shinique Smith | shiniquesmith.com

At a Dec. 8 meeting convened by the Austin African American Business Networking Association (AAABNA), community members got a chance to hear from an artist who has been hired to spruce up the bus turnaround on the northeast corner of Austin and Chicago Avenues.

Although the Chicago Transit Authority has been incorporating public art into ‘L’ stations for years, this will mark the first time the agency will install art at a bus turnaround. New York-based artist Shinique Smith has been chosen to create the public installation.

At last week’s meeting, held at Sankofa Cultural Arts Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave. in Austin, Smith said that she is still working out a concept for the installation, but assured residents that she’ll use the site’s layout and the Austin area’s history as inspiration.

AAABNA members and residents all said that they wanted something that would serve as a welcoming gateway and a monument to the community’s history and to African American culture.

Whatever design Smith comes up with will have to be approved by the CTA. If everything stays on schedule, it is expected to be unveiled no sooner than late 2017.

The turnaround has existed, in some form or another, since at least 1895, when Cicero & Proviso Street Railway street car company built a line along Chicago Avenue between Cicero and Austin Avenue. The line was converted to a trolleybus line in 1952 and into a diesel bus line in 1967.

Over the past few decades, the turnaround has experienced several service changes. It currently serves as a final western stop of CTA Route 66, which travels between the turnaround and Navy Pier along Chicago Avenue. Northbound CTA Route 91 buses, which serve Austin Avenue, stop on the west side of the turnaround, allowing easy transfers.

Over the past year, AAABNA has been working to attract more businesses to this part of Chicago Avenue, which they have been referring to as the “Soul corridor” — both to invoke Austin’s history as a black community and the fact that Chicago Avenue is often described as “the soul of Chicago.”

The Dec. 8 meeting was designed to be a forum where AAABNA members and any Austin residents interested in attending could find out about what the turnaround project and tell Smith and the CTA what they want to see.

In his introductory remarks, Malcolm Crawford, AAABNA’s executive director, described the project as a way to build on recent successes.

“We had seven businesses open in this corridor this year,” he said. “It’s just an exciting time, and though I’ve been involved the whole year, it’s just God moving things along.”

Crawford said the turnaround project is an opportunity to create an entryway that would emphasize Austin’s African American identity, similar to the Greek columns in Greek Town, the Mexican art at Pilsen’s 18th Street ‘L’ station and the Puerto Rican flags that hover over traffic in Humboldt Park.

Elizabeth Kelly, CTA’s project coordinator, explained that funding for the project comes from the Federal Transit Administration. It will just be the latest project built as part of the CTA’s public art program. 

Since 2004, the FTA funds were spent on a number of stations, including the Central Park-Conservatory Green Line ‘L’ station, and the Pulaski, Central Park, Kedzie and California Pink Line ‘L’ stations.

In February 2016, the transit agency went out to bid for projects for four facilities, including the Austin turnaround. Smith was the agency’s top selection. Her work has been exhibited at The Studio Museum of Harlem; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Brooklyn Museum of Art; Denver Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Bronx Museum of the Arts; and The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

“We’re really, really excited that an artist of her stature applied for the project, and we feel that her work will enhance it,” said Kelly.

As Smith explained during the meeting, she draws inspiration from graffiti, her classical art training, and used clothing, as well as her own identity as a black woman.

“Part of why I work this way is how, unlike when I was drawing a picture of something, I wanted to create a feeling,” she said. “I wanted to create work that would convey many messages at once.”

Getting community input is important to her, as is creating something that would inspire children the way artwork inspired her when she was young, Smith said, adding that there are similarities between Baltimore’s Edmondson Village neighborhood, where she grew up, and Austin.

Both are formerly white communities that underwent rapid demographic shifts due to “white flight” and racist blockbusting, and both saw economic declines in the 1980s. Smith said she plans to draw on Austin’s history and do workshops with local students, incorporating their work into the project.

But Smith made it clear that public input will only go so far.

“The mission is not so much, ‘I want this and that,’ she said. “It’s more of, ‘Not only what you say and suggest, but my interpretation of it,'” she said.

Smith said that the fact that the turnaround has no walls whatsoever presents a challenge, but one she could see herself overcoming.

“I don’t create spaces,” she said. “I really try to respond to sites and feel them out. It’s exciting for me as an artist because it’s not going to be like anything I’ve made.”

While Smith said she was still in the very early stages of brainstorming, she added that she was aiming to create something that would transform the turnaround into more of a public space where people would want to congregate.

Resident Vannesa Stokes said that she inherited a large archive of pictures from her father, and she and her sister were looking for some way to display them in some public venue in Austin.

“I just wanted to share this with you, just so you know that we’re here, and we’re here to stay, and we’d like to participate in whatever [art] is going on in Austin,” Stokes told Smith.

Explaining the approval process, Kelly said that Smith will submit two proposals that will be evaluated based on durability, stability and whether they would interfere with the buses. The CTA approves the final design, which is then presented to the public. Only after all this will construction begin.