Around this time last year, Austin resident Vanessa Stokes was looking for a way to share her father’s photography with the Austin community, where he spent his final years. Dorrell Creightney passed away in 2011, but left behind a large archive of street scenes, images of Chicago jazz museums performing, portraits and nude photography.
Stokes and her sister wanted to share positive images that depicted African-Americans going about their lives. Stokes said that they wanted to remind people that, contrary to the usually negative media depictions, good things happen in black neighborhoods, too.
This fall, several of those photos went up at the Central/Lake Green Line ‘L’ station. And two weeks ago, 12 photos went up on the two sides of Kinzie/Larramie Union Pacific West Metra Line viaduct, near By the Hand Club’s Austin location and Laramie Green Line ‘L’ station.
The photos at the ‘L’ station will stay up for three years, with different photos displayed each year. The photos under the viaduct will stay up indefinitely. Stokes said that, so far, the response has been positive, and Austin Weekly News observed many residents praising the images while they were being installed.
Creightney was born in Kingston, Jamaica. He moved to the Chicago area in the 1950s. Aside from a few years he spent in Sweden in the 1960s, he spent most of the rest of his life in the city. Creightney made a living as a freelance photographer, mostly in advertising.
But he also took plenty of photos of street scenes in Hyde Park, Woodlawn and what is now known as Clybourn Corridor — the section of Lincoln Square that, when Stokes and her sister were growing up, was a largely black and Latino working-class neighborhood.
Creightney and his wife, Maxine, moved to Austin relatively late in life, in 2004. The couple were active with local gardening projects, and Mrs. Creightney was involved with the Austin Green Team.
In an interview late last year, Stokes said that she wanted her father’s work to be displayed in a place where the community could see it.
At the time, she mentioned that she was talking to Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) about possible locations. In an interview last week, Stokes said that the alderman was originally not open to it. But Mitts eventually changed her mind.
She originally hoped to install the photos on the section of the Union Pacific West Line embankment near Central/Lake intersection, at a spot where the “Dreams” mural was painted in August 2017. Because the area was in Ald. Chris Taliaferro’s 29th Ward, it was ruled out.
Mitts wanted to have photos on a major street. The Kinzie/Larramie viaduct was located between the ‘L’ station and By the Hand, which seemed like an ideal spot.
Stokes and her sister pulled up twelve photos from their father’s collection and made large prints of them. Each print was put inside a metal frame, which was attached to the wall. Artist Keith Brownlee, whom Stokes knew for a number of years, worked with Takeya Ochiai to put them in place.
“I think it was one of the areas [in Austin] that could use the most work,” Brownlee reflected as he prepared to mount a photo.
The costs of making the prints and putting them into the viaduct were covered through the Year of Public Art grant. Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events launched this grant in February. Under the program, DCASE funded 50 percent of the costs, and the remaining 50 percent came from the local alderman’s “aldermanic menu” funds. According to Stokes, the project cost a total of $15,000.
She said that she still hoped to put some photos up near Central/Lake. When the CTA approached Stokes in the spring of 2017, she jumped at the chance.
Those photos went up in the fall of 2017. The prints were slightly smaller than the viaduct prints, and, unlike the viaduct prints, they are lit up from behind. They were placed on the south side of the hallway that leads to stairs and the escalator that goes up to the platform.
She said that, if the images are defaced or torn down, she will have them replaced, although she said she doesn’t worry about that prospect too much.
“I have faith in people.” Stokes said. “I believe activation is possible, and people like art, just in any other community, and people won’t vandalize it. Even if they do, we’ll replace it.”
In both cases, Stokes and her sister searched their father’s archive and picked out images with a very particular purpose in mind.
“The whole purpose was using those images to show people, regular people, and what they do on a daily basis, and remind folks of who we are — happy people,” she said. “We might have our challenges, but we’re still regular people, working and living. That’s why my sister and I picked those images. We wanted to show positive black images.”
Most of the residents who passed by while the photos were being installed stopped and looked, with several people complimenting them. Stokes said that the feedback she’s received has been positive.
“When [Brownlee] was installing the last few, it was around rush hour, there were people walking around the viaduct,” she said. “A couple came up to me and hugged me, and they were like, ‘Thank you, Austin really needs it.’ Another woman said that it was nice to have art in our community, that it was nice to have art of our own.”