After the Chicago Transit Authority introduced Erin Elizabeth Curtis at May 9 community meeting held at the Garfield Park Fieldhouse, 100 N. Central Park, the reaction from the audience was overwhelmingly skeptical.
Curtis is the artist who has been commissioned by the CTA to create new public art for the Kedzie/Lake Green Line ‘L’ Station. Born in Albany, New York, Curtis has an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. She currently lives in Austin, Texas. Much of her work is abstract and composed of bright acrylic patterns.
Many of the residents who spoke at the meeting felt that Curtis’ focus on abstract art wasn’t right for the community and that they wanted an artist whose depictions were more realistic. They also took issue with the CTA having selected an artist outside of Chicago and one who they felt hasn’t done enough to reach out to artists from the community.
The CTA officials in attendance at the meeting said that they chose artists for the public installations based on artistic merit first — including artistic recognition and body of work; however, they added that community input is vital to whatever artwork will ultimately grace the station.
The Kedzie/Lake station has been part of what is now known as the Lake Street branch of the Green Line since 1894. It saw a number of design changes over the years, and the current station houses, elevators and walkways built in the mid-1990s as part of a line-wide reconstruction and rehabilitation project.
In 2011, CTA launched an effort to add artwork to as many stations as possible. While a number of North Side and South Side stations have received art installations, no West Side stations have. The Conservatory-Central Park Drive Green Line station already had mosaics installed in 2004 as part of the Adopt-the-Station program, and most Pink Line stations that serve North and South Lawndale got artwork the same year as part of Arts in Transit program.
In February 2016, CTA invited artists from all over the country to apply for a chance to create artwork for four stations, including Kedzie/Lake. Nearly 350 artists applied.
Elizabeth Kelley, CTA’s art project consultant, said that Curtis has already toured East Garfield Park to start getting some inspiration. Kelley noted that that the artist was struck by West Garfield Park’s abandoned Guyon Hotel and enjoyed visiting the Garfield Park Conservatory. The CTA will be providing Curtis with historical information, Kelley said, adding that Curtis will also do her own research and will visit the community.
But that’s not consolation for many residents, who felt that the CTA spurned local artists in their selection process.
Valletta Buckner, who works at Harold Washington College, said her college and other city colleges have plenty of young artists who didn’t get a change to apply to work on the project.
“Why didn’t you put this out through colleges in Chicago and make these young artists aware?” Buckner said.
Kelley explained that the CTA did extensive outreach in Chicago, sending out press releases, taking out ads and emailing information about the program to CTA’s mailing list of Chicago artists. In response to a resident who asked how area youth would be involved in the installation process, Curtis said that she could possibly out on workshops, depending “on what the final form of the project is.”
Gregorio Gomez, of East Garfield Park, said that while he liked Curtis’ artwork, he didn’t feel like it reflected Chicago, let alone East Garfield Park in particular – something that, he felt, was a common problem with ‘L’ station artwork.
“Unfortunately, the CTA, in its infinite wisdom, decided not to represent [the community,” he mused.
Keith Kelley, president of the Garfield Park Advisory Council, said that Curtis’ style may not be right for the community.
“Our community faces social issues that need to be addressed,” he said. “Youth in our community needs to have very concrete messages of hope and inspiration.”
Curtis responded to those criticisms by advocating for the universal quality of her artwork.
“I’m a devotee of abstract language and I do find it a universal way of speaking,” she said. “Almost every culture in the world has abstract cultural expressions.”
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who hosted the community meeting, said that he may schedule another meeting so that the CTA and the community can find a “happy medium.”