Photo by Igor Studenkov

In many ways, the Culture Capsule exhibit, which opened in East Garfield Park’s 345 Art Gallery, 345 N. Kedzie Ave., on May 13, came about because of happenstance. 

Artist Tori Stewart, of south suburban South Holland, happened to be attending the same South Side art fair as fellow South Hollander Keila Strong and Hollie Davis, of the South Side’s Beverly neighborhood. The three struck up a conversation and realized that, as Black women who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and worked in the themes of memory and lived Black experiences, they had a lot in common. Stewart felt that it would make sense for them to collaborate – and when art collector and 345 Art Gallery owner Corry Williams asked if she would be interested in exhibiting in his gallery, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

The overarching theme of the Culture Capsule exhibit, which will run through the rest of May, is capturing the past, the present and the future of Black experience. This was the first time all three artists took part in a West Side exhibit. They were impressed with Williams’ gallery – with Stewart saying that she would try to put together more West Side shows in the future. 

Williams opened 345 Art Gallery in 2015 to encourage local artists to pursue their talents and create a space where East Garfield Park residents, especially kids, felt like they belonged. Like many other cultural venues, the gallery struggled at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has since come roaring back, hosting exhibitions and events throughout the year, and organizing events such as school supply giveaways for students at local schools.

Williams said whenever he goes to art shows, he is always on the lookout for artists who would be a good fit for his gallery. He said he was impressed with the trio’s talent, and he was pleased with the show they put together.

“We like to engage with artists, to encourage them to come out and share their vision,” Williams said. 

Stewart, who has been a professional artist for the past 6 years, creates mixed-media pieces that include painted components and layers of paper and texture such as yarn and denim.

“I focus pretty much on lived experiences of predominantly Black people and how it looks in different ways.” she said.

Stewart said she is fascinated with textures because she came from a family that moved to the South Side from the American South, which required certain grit. 

“I’m inspired by my life story and the life experiences of the people who shared their life stories with me,” she said. “I just want to put lived experiences of the stories they shared.”

Stewart said when Williams asked her about the show, she “thought it was a no-brainer to come out and do this South/West side collaboration.”

Davis, who has been an artist for 10 years, brought pieces from her Corner Store Series, paintings of people hanging at the street corners rendered in bright, vivid colors. She said it came out of her feeling how, as adults, “we have to buy something every day.” Davis chose the colors because she wanted to show that, whether one realizes or not, everyone has rich inner lives.

“We don’t know what’s going on with them,” she said. “I wanted to [encourage everyone] to be kind to yourself, be compassionate to yourself and show empathy.”

 Davis said she appreciated the support she got from Williams as she prepared for the show.

“He encouraged me to be my absolute best and still allowed me to be myself,” she said.

Strong has been a professional artist since 2016. For Culture Capsule, she brought multi-media mosaics and paintings. 

“All of them capture certain moments in the childhood memory, in the African American culture,” she said. “I’m documenting different hair styles to show how our hair indicates different time periods we lived in, and how some of those styles come back.”

Some pieces capture memories and history in other ways. A piece called “Bubblegum Bubblegum,” for example, depicts a children’s tag game with images of children’s shoes in a circle and a bubblegum ribbon winding its way through.

All three artists were impressed with the 345 Art Gallery. 

Strong said she appreciated how roomy the gallery was, and the deck in the back, and the generally comfortable feel.

“I think this is just what this community needs,” she said.

“I feel like [Williams’] willingness to bring this space to this area – it’s like he’s saying, ‘I love you’ to this community,” Stewart said. “It’s deserving of it. I love what Corry is doing on and I plan on having many more events with him in the future.”

Visitors can see the exhibit during the 345 Art Gallery’s regular hours, Wednesday – Saturday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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...