Artist J. Omar Magana, the executive director of the Vertical Gallery at Nichols Tower, explains the significance of the piece he contributed to the gallery. | Igor Studenkov/Staff

When Kevin Sutton, the executive director of the Foundation for Homan Square got a glimpse of the original Sears tower, 906 S. Homan Ave., on the company’s historic North Lawndale campus, he looked at all the barren walls and saw a canvas.

“When I first came into this building, I started thinking, ‘This is too much precious wall space, and there are too many community assets [in Homan Square] that need to be shown and shared,’” he said.

Several years later, the historic building was renovated into Nichols Tower, which houses the offices for area nonprofits and the School of Art Institute of Chicago’s (SAIC) North Lawndale campus.

On Oct. 27, the Foundation hosted the opening reception for the new Vertical Gallery permanent exhibition. Artists who live and work in, or have a connection to either North Lawndale or Little Village were asked to create pieces that went up on the flights of stairs leading to the top of the tower. The pieces will be available to view for free to anyone who visits the tower during regular hours.

Vertical Gallery is a collaboration between the Foundation, which works to redevelop the former Sears campus, and Open Center for the Arts, a Little Village art gallery at 2214 S Sacramento Ave. which has done some projects in North Lawndale. J. Omar Magana, the gallery’s executive director who also contributed some of his artwork to the gallery, said that they got involved at Sutton’s request.

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“Several artists were invited to present a proposal that was about transformation — how they see the community transform and how their lives have been transformed,” he said.

Magana said that “14 to 15” artists submitted the proposals and they chose seven. Artist Alexie Young lives in North Lawndale and previously organized West Side gallery tours and events, and operated the Art West Gallery in North Lawndale.  

Her work takes up two flights of stairs on the sixth and seventh floors. The seventh floor piece, “Where We Live,” shows a community streetscape with abstract figures walking around and looking out the windows. The sixth floor has two paintings, with “Outer Limits of Life” depicting a sensual interaction between two nude figures, painted in reds, yellows, browns and greens, and “Cleanse with Osun” depicting a woman taking a baptism-like dip in a the water.

“I tend to paint two women or the masculine/feminine energy,” Young explained. “[With the second painting], you have a woman who’s in the river. There are people who cleanse in the river because of indigenous spirituality.”

Artist Sonja Henderson lives in Pilsen, but she was an artist in residence at SAIC’s North Lawndale campus has conducted mindfulness workshops in the community. She gained national attention after being commissioned to create a memorial to Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, at Argo High School, a southwest suburban Summit school where Mobley was one of the first Black students. Her piece on the fourth floor, “As Above, So Below,” is a canvass of spiral patterns made of small pieces of various metals – which is meant to show “how society affects the individual, and vice-versa.”

“I let the sprit move me and guide the spirals,” she said. “I was over the moon when I saw how it was presented. I had a completely different vision.”

Jaclyn Jacunski, an artist and SAIC’s director of civic engagement, is one of the artists who had a piece on the second floor. She said that “FROM Here”, which shows a chain-link fence with pieces of colorful plastic, is meant to reimagine the fences that “keep communities apart” as “spaces to play, care and interaction.”  

Robbie Harrison-Coleman grew up in North Lawndale and worked on the Sears campus during its last few years of operation. She was one of the attendees who went on the tour during the reception.

“I enjoyed it,” Harris-Coleman said. “We got a lot of great artists in the community. This is where I grew up. These are my roots.”  

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...