Founder of Front Porch Arts Center Keli Stewart poses with West Side artists Tony Collins and Markeya Howard | Provided, Dion_50mm

On April 25, the doors at 5941 W. Chicago Ave. opened for the first time to welcome West Siders eager to share their memories of Chicago’s West Side. Minutes after 6 p.m., Keli Stewart stood at the front of a small, but mighty crowd to present the agenda – a night of storytelling and open mic opportunities featuring West Side artists. 

Stewart is the founder of the arts nonprofit Front Porch Arts Center, which since 2019, has popped up at community gardens, parks, library spaces and front porches to expand arts programming opportunities for Austin residents.

“We’re excited to finally be in a space…” she said at the fundraising event. She said last year the nonprofit received a grant through the Chicago Recovery program to purchase another property on Chicago Avenue, however a developer purchased it first. “But by the grace of God we were able to find this space, which is double the size of that space, so I feel like we came up.”  

Stewart, a lifelong writer and 2021 fellow of the School of the Art Institute Nichols Tower Artist-in-Residence, saw the impact of arts first-hand when her speech therapist recommended she participate in arts. Until last year she did not know she is autistic, she said. “I was born a person who stutters,” Stewart, who recalled the first time she performed in a play and said. “I found out then that I did not stutter on stage. It forced me to breathe, to project, to write.” Now, the founder of Front Porch Arts Center seeks donations to complete the purchase of the building on Chicago Avenue, a permanent site to host youth arts programs and exhibitions uplifting West Side artists. Stewart plans to have an office, a gallery with event space, and artmaking spaces. 

At its new location, Front Porch Arts Center will be hosting a monthly storytelling event every fourth Tuesday of the month at 6 p.m. where anyone can share a story, memory or anecdote of life on the West Side.  Stewart’s parents, Floyd and Hazel Stewart shared a West Side love story. They met in K-Town, in North Lawndale, where they both grew up. “This is a true story about love,” Hazel Stewart said. “We were introduced by a first-cousin and we looked into each other’ eyes and ‘wow.’” They have been married for more than 40 years.  

Visual and graffiti artist Tony Collins remembered how renowned educator Marva Collins helped him overcome learning disabilities and pursue a career in the arts. In 1975,  Collins founded Westside Preparatory School to help improve education in Garfield Park and provide quality education to students with learning disabilities. In the 1980s, Tony Collins attended Westside Preparatory School where Marva Collins taught him that he could excel in anything he set his mind to, giving him self-confidence to become an artist. His story, he said, is a testimony to teachers, who “could start a revolution if they wanted to.”  He recalled one class in which Marva Collins told him “You are beautiful and you are brilliant.”

“And that’s the first time I ever heard that,” Collins said. “From that, I always took that approach to anything. Graffiti was a perfect medium because I was fearless because I was beautiful and brilliant.”

Collins highlighted the need for educators like Marva Collins for today’s youth, teachers who believe in young people. “Without proper education your kid is doing footwork on top of the CTA bus, because if you knew better, you would surely do better,” Collins said. 

Dancer and youth instructor Markeya Howard took the stage to share how she works to bring her art to the West Side. Howard is the founder of Mofindu African Drum and Dance Company. She has taught African dance and drumming in Lawndale and Garfield Park and wants to bring her art to Austin. Dance, she said, helps educate people on how we have a shared history and humanity, adding it was through dance that she realized the similarities between Caribbean and African culture. 

“We all have a common thread.” 

At the end of the night, Keli Stewart said all donations will help Front Porch Arts Center continue to provide a space to uplift West Side artists and reshape the narratives of the West Side. “My father always said if you can make it on the West Side, you can make it anywhere.”