The West Side of Chicago is home to a thriving and growing arts culture. From actors to musicians, fine artists to industrial designers, the scene is growing and a part of the fabric of the neighborhood. It’s a culture where people support and push each other. It holds space for accountability and growth. It pulses with the beat of Chicago. Here are a few of the key players.
For Chicago native Alexandria Eregbu, the world is in blue. The artist, who focuses on installations and fabric arts, is passionate about indigo. She is based in Austin and teaches a sold-out course on the origins of indigo at the Art Institute. At a recent show in nearby Oak Park at Compound Yellow, she built denim quilts embossed with family photos with fellow artist Amanda Hearth for the exhibit, “Beyond Blue.” For Alexandria, her work is deeply connected to family, environmentalism and the rhythm of Chicago’s West Side. The history of indigo is connected to her father’s family in Nigeria and their use of the dye in fabric arts but she also examines the darker side of indigo: its use as a cash crop during the slave trade. Through denim, the implications of synthetic dyes, environmental racism and consumerism are all themes she is unafraid to confront. Indigo as a throughline to examine the history of a people and community is just one way the DJ and film director connects her Chicago neighborhood to the wider world. Like denim, the workingman’s fabric, Chicago means grit, hard work and transformation.
Gallery owner and art collector Corry Williams is committed to serving the West Side. He notes that growing up he never saw art and that people would always have to leave the neighborhood to experience art and culture. He decided to change that by opening up the non-profit gallery 345 Art Gallery. The space serves as a community hub, organizing art field trips for Chicago Public School students and hosting art classes and events. Williams has collected art for over 20 years and travels frequently to places like Cuba to bring parts of the world for the West Side to experience. He’s drawn to “serious” artists who focus on their craft and find them close to home. One elderly woman he met in the neighborhood never thought of herself as an artist until Williams curated a show of her pieces. “The appreciation of the community inspires me,” Williams said. The community continues to excite and surprise his artistic sensibilities.
North Lawndale native Terron Collins is attuned to little things. As an actor, he has to be. A subtle gesture can turn a serious scene into a darkly humorous one. A turn of phrase can skewer a lifetime of microaggressions and educate an audience. For the 22-year-old theatrical newcomer his life on the stage has translated to noticing more about his neighborhood as well. After his inaugural show at North Lawndale’s Theatre Y this past spring, “We Are Proud to Present…,” an old building that he always passed by warranted a second look. Inside, the old and stately structure housed an artistic center. For Terron, North Lawndale is like that. You look below the surface and you find creativity and a welcoming spirit – driven by and for the community. His mentor, the artist, muralist and activist Haman Cross introduced Terron to the arts through his work at the Firehouse Community Arts Center when Terron was a sophomore in high school. Now, Terron is a mentor himself. He worked with Theatre Y’s youth programming to organize a walking interpretation of,” The Wiz,” by 12–24-year-olds in North Lawndale. It was exciting and challenging – the young actors had to be quick on their toes to improvise and adapt to the moving set. What’s next for the young thespian? He appreciates ‘80’s horror films and their ability to be both real and clumsy, while using absurdity to interpret events. A fan of “Candyman,” Terron values its critique of gentrification in the Black community. He’s driven by themes that are out of the box and surprising, much like the West Side itself.
“Here’s the deal. I’m in the process of shooting a movie, I’m in it.” If you want to catch legendary Chicago-based artist Marvin Tate, you have to move quickly. If he’s not filming a horror movie based on a storefront church cult in North Lawndale, he’s touring a spoken word jazz record in Europe. He could be working on his found objects installations or teaching young theater students at the West Side’s Theatre Y as an artist-in-residence. Prolific and generous with his time, Marvin is especially well-known for his driving, genre-defying music. And it all started on the West Side of Chicago. Shy and a stutterer, Marvin turned to poetry and music as a child. At his grandmother’s funeral, he remembers feeling transfixed by the raw, bluesy music coming from his grandfather’s front room. He wanted to illustrate the images coming into his mind’s eye and found art and poetry gave him that outlet. Growing up poor, he remembers putting on plays with his siblings and pretending to be a celebrity. While his own celebrity has grown, that does not concern Marvin now. He sees art as his religion and his mission as planting the seeds of community to help youth in North Lawndale experience art. He advises young artists to be diligent and focus on their craft. He believes art should be universal and humble and that the best art has no boundaries or identities. A jam session, a brainstorm, a world of possibilities – that’s Marvin’s reality. Choosing a creative life can be difficult but Marvin advises aspiring creatives to “tell your story, be patient and build a community.”
When artist Alexie Young first began to dedicate herself to painting, she didn’t understand why she was drawn to the same pastel colors. It wasn’t until the young mother traveled to Belize, that she understood her inherent impulse. The first-generation American’s family was originally from the Central American republic and nearly every building or street was painted in a pastel hue. She felt connected to her heritage and learned to feel comfortable with what she gravitated towards artistically. That includes her impulses to work collectively, teach and “commune with,” her fellow artists on the West Side of Chicago. She started the now shuttered Art West Gallery, (closed due to a licensing issue) but aims to revamp it and re-open soon. As a child, she always knew she wanted to be an artist and was drawn to Georgia O’Keefe. Now, she wants kids in her own neighborhood to have artists they can see and hear who look like them. She is well on her way to achieving her goal. Noting a “season of redevelopment,” on the West Side, Alexie facilitates a series of grants that include artistic installations or projects in real estate developments. She aims to build out an ecosystem of artists that support and uplift each other. You can find her planning a mural or coordinating a story-telling project. Bringing people together and building community. “Every part of the world is here,” she says of the West Side, as she plans to bring the West Side to the world.
“The West Side means everything to me,” says photographer Tye Moores. As a black, queer woman she says it shapes how she sees the world and approaches her work. From exhibits and editorials for the Obama Foundation, to the Chicago Defender and Vogue, she brings black culture to the fore. The editor, public relations pro, and podcaster brings her sharp photographer skills to each project she touches. She sees art in creating community and bringing people together. She finds inspiration in “moments that are fleeting,” from the everyday rhythm of her neighborhood. She is passionate about capturing the stories of the older generation of black people, archiving how they speak, what stories they have to tell; how she can carry on their wisdom and lessons learned. Her engaging wit will draw you in and before you know it, she’s captured that perfect fleeting moment on film.
Chicago native Marcus Alleyne found art in the seemingly unlikeliest of places: business school. While studying in Washington, DC he found an art class that drew him back to his graffiti artist roots and decided to pursue a creative life. He notes that artists are also small business owners and many of the lessons learned studying the fine arts of administration apply to the art world. The painter is also drawn to, “salvage.” He shares studio space on the West Side at Altspace. “I was always collecting, hoarding, taking various found items like fabric, wood and paint.” At Altspace, Marcus participated in “Redemptive Plastics,” a collective project to remake discarded laundry bottles into objects for the community like park benches, chairs and garbage bins. He notes that this project speaks to the artistic community in Chicago’s culture of passion for not just making a living but moving towards social justice. From consumption towards a more balanced approach. Marcus is passionate about helping traditionally under- resourced communities find pathways towards art. He notes that people without resources are often the most creative, with the most to offer.