50 Years Later, a Community Art Center and Murals in Schools Remain
“Native American Theme,” by John Edwin Walley. Photo courtesy of Terence Faircloth
At the height of the Great Depression, the U.S. government created the largest publicly-funded arts program in its history. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in an effort to alleviate the country’s 25 percent unemployment rate, created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), employing hundreds of thousands of Americans to build roads and government buildings. He also created a sub-agency, the Federal Art Project (FAP), employing painters, sculptors, printmakers, writers and actors to create more than 200,000 works of art between 1935 and 1943, according to The Art Story, a nonprofit arts education organization.
Artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Joseph Stella were employed by the Project, according to Artists at Work, a 1991 video produced by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Artists were finally able to make a living, thanks to public support. “It moved us to tell the story of the American people in our work,” says artist Joseph Delaney. “Artists have a tendency to live in an ivory tower,” said sculptor Alice Neel, but WPA funding “took us out of our studio and made us more aware of the world around us.”
The Project also established teaching programs in community centers and schools across the country, including in rural areas and held exhibitions of professional artists’ and citizens’ work. It founded 100 community art centers around the U.S. At his 1941 dedication of the National Gallery of Art, Roosevelt said Americans have been “taught to believe art was something foreign to America and to themselves. They have discovered in the last few years that art is something in which they have a part. They have discovered their own towns in pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors.” One community art center still stands, and it is in Chicago. The South Side Community Art Center, now a nonprofit, has been a venue for African-American art for more than 70 years.
According to Art for the Millions, a 1973 collection of essays, Chicago’s “Poster Division” experienced such high demand that it created a dedicated “Silkscreen Department.” The posters were advertisements from the “City of Chicago, State of Illinois, the Federal Health Department, The U.S. Post Office, Chicago Park District, Department of Agriculture, the Chicago Zoological Park, Libraries, the Art Institute of Chicago, and many others,” as well as various agencies within the WPA. The posters were placed on “the ‘L,’ art museums, schools, libraries, community centers and in traveling exhibits,” and were given to local merchants for their shop windows.
There were children’s art galleries, community art centers where anyone could take classes, and FAP galleries established to show the work. Writer Mary Morsell says the Project’s exhibition program was like a “slow journey from New York to San Francisco. They give a vivid sense of all that may be ours, if cultural riches be given one half the encouragement that has brought triumph in the mechanical and industrial world.” In her travels she saw “a painting of a Negro graveyard in New Orleans, Middle Western farmyards drawn in the mood of poetic fantasy and a piece of mystical folk sculpture.”
For the first time in American history, she says, the general public was as responsive to contemporary visual art as it had been to new books, plays or music, because citizens had been given the opportunity to participate in the arts in their own communities. Professional artists, however, were not ubiquitous in their acceptance.
Artist Robert Jay Wolff wrote an essay claiming the idea of the artist as Bohemian was still strong among artists in America. For the first time, artists were offered regular employment, but it was not accepted with “wonder and enthusiasm by the whole community,” Wolff says. American society still considered the artist to be a talented misfit, and artists still clung to the legend that gave them, through poverty and isolation, precious freedom from the humbling process of identifying one’s efforts with those of others. “It is safe to say that not a few of them at the beginning of the Project were prepared to be ashamed of their employment,” Wolff says.
Over time, he says, that changed. New York artist James Brooks said in Artists at Work that the FAP “took competition between artists out of the art world, so we started to see ourselves as part of a whole.” But that solidarity came to work against them in the end when some Project artists began including representations of workers’ rights and symbols of communism in their work. In 1939, the Project began laying artists off and experiencing budget cuts. Chicago artists had already formed the first ever labor union for members of their profession, the Artists’ Union. Although it took courage to join amid accusations of being “red” artists, Wolff writes, members were turning out work that was creating a “nationwide impression that Chicago was an increasingly important center of American art.”
Neel said that Republican Party members she knew were starting to say that FAP artists were “just boondoggling.” According to The Art Story, Mark Rothko was dropped from the Project 1939, and Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock were let go a few years later. As Americans were increasingly employed as part of the country’s WWII effort, the Works Progress Administration became obsolete in the eyes of the public and the government, and in December 1943 the WPA and all of its programs was disbanded.
The federal government began auctioning off thousands of WPA-funded paintings by the pound, according to Artists at Work. One plumber paid $300 for several thousand oil paintings to use as pipe insulation. Public murals across the country were removed or painted over. “The Red Scare made people afraid that there may be symbolism in them,” said Brooks. Not five years prior, Chicago’s reputation as a serious art center had been growing thanks to the very artists who were later “denounced and vilified,” by the public, according to Wolff. Imagining a legacy greater than a handful of murals around the city, he wrote his essay in 1939, when the Artists’ Union was “finally becoming the collective voice of this new and fruitful patronage.”
Beginning in 1994, the Chicago Conservation Center uncovered and restored many of the hundreds of WPA-funded murals in Chicago Public Schools. Ours is an age in which public funding for the arts and arts education is continually under attack from the right. Cities tear down works of architectural beauty to make room for functional structures, and museums favor fashion and celebrity-related exhibitions to attract visitors. The Federal Art Project could never happen now, but it is a bit of hope to see that in this one instance, Chicago did not throw away what it already had.
Artists in Chicago and India Consider the Possibilities of Urban Agriculture
Diners sit at wooden tables amongst vermiculture beds inside the old truck depot where the Iron Street Farm keeps its mushrooms and fish. Inside the surrounding crates, worms create new nutritious soil from waste collected from farming sites across South Chicago. Before the meal begins, the group steps outside to a plot of land behind the hoop houses to participate in a Native American ritual which recognizes the moment of our shared meal by throwing tobacco leaves into a fire. The ashes are composed of previous fires held around the country at meals that celebrate the diversity of knowledge that many cultures around the world employ to create sustainable food cultures.
This is the headquarters of the Chicago branch of Growing Power, a network of farms that support community education, nutrition and enterprise through the cultivation of local produce in a program of urban agriculture. The farm borders the banks of the South Fork of the Chicago River, commonly known as Bubbly Creek. This nickname describes the gasses released from the riverbed due to the decomposition of animal parts thrown into the water during Chicago’s early 20th century boom in the meatpacking industry. On this Saturday evening, artists, chefs and farmers are dining together as part of the Rooting: Regional Networks, Global Concerns Symposium, a program which brings together sustainable food communities and artists to consider the agricultural issues facing dense urban populations and imagine new legacies.
Illustration by Christopher Givens. Photo still by David Seitz Jr.
Rooting, which also exhibited works by 12 artists in the Sullivan Galleries, is organized by the Rhizome Alliance, a group of artists and activists from Chicago and Delhi. This group is funded by the Shapiro foundation’s Eager Grant, and seeks to forge bonds between the two cities, specifically around the issues of changing agricultural practices. The idea for the project blossomed when SAIC faculty member Deborah Boardman met artist Akshay Raj Singh Rathore while on a residency at Sanskriti in Delhi.
Rathore, who comes from a family of farmers, is currently pursuing a project which would reintroduce heritage seeds — strains of plants handed down by generations of farmers not grown by large-scale commercial agriculture — within India. He emphasized that in India, “food is not just food; it becomes a huge cultural reference. It involves issues from eating, cooking, to growing, to what to do after the waste.”
While the use of advanced technologies in food production and the industrial distribution of seeds may seem obscure to uninformed people, they affect almost every aspect of everyday food consumption. Rathore says that artists can forge bonds beyond cultural boundaries which can reclaim ground for traditional farming methods in the face of the assumption that modern techniques are always best. Through the public works at the heart of Rooting, Rathore hopes to bring insight and clarity to such questions as “What are we eating and what are the conditions of the people who are growing these foods? Do we need development? What is development?”
The symposium is creating pockets where those conversations can happen. Tour buses, where artists, chefs and farmers interact, visited different farms and cultural centers on Chicago’s South Side to collaboratively prepare food and collectively consume it. In describing the roles that she strives to create through the alliances at the symposium Boardman affirmed, “Artists can provide the space to imagine other possibilities to feel some hope and optimism that alternatives have begun to exist and have existed in the past.” For her it was crucial to acknowledge “that there are things from tradition that can help us move forward and that there are some exciting activists and entrepreneurs that can move us forward.”
On the foraging tour that took place as part of the symposium weekend, writer and seed grower Michael Swierz discussed the facets of wild and cultivated foods. He taught attendees about recognizing the characteristics of plants, such as the neurotoxicity of nightshades and the digestive assistance of mints and how to recognize plant families by leaf and flower shape. Participants learnt how to start to discern safe wild plants to eat, like the apple family haw berries of the Hawthorne tree and the Burdock tuber. He told the group that puffball mushrooms were safe when young, but recounted a conversation with a mycologist who told him about unfortunate teenagers who decided to snort the dry black spores, which promptly ate their brains. Plants often have distinct phases of conserving and energy and releasing that energy into seed in a natural cycle. Swierz runs gardens in Chicago that are not to grow food, but instead allow plants to begin seeding in order to create a local seed bank.
Rathore comments that “What we [in India] are trying to lose, people here are trying to achieve and what we are trying to achieve people here are trying to lose … In India, a lot of farmers want bigger tractors, bigger fertilizers and pesticides, whereas in the city of Chicago, people don’t want that … I am here to understand the urban engagements here and share the knowledge, share the understanding … and compare it to our very different urban situations.”
Where the post-industrial flatlands offer the space for a high number of urban farming initiatives in Chicago, Delhi’s rapidly growing population, which is fueled by rural to urban immigration, faces a host of different challenges in developing urban farming practices. The next phase of Rooting will take place as an exchange between the two cities. Khoj, a space in Delhi dedicated to artwork centered on ecology and food since its foundation in 1997, will host a residency program. Rathore is also working with Chicago artists Lia Rousset and Amber Ginsburg to exchange cloves of garlic between the cities, while keeping records of this transmission on a shared blog. The artists decided to use garlic as the representative seed of exchange because of the plant’s global popularity and the etymology of the word “Chicago” which is derived from the Miami-Illinois Native American word for wild onion or garlic. The Delhi bulb will be planted on the roof of Chicago’s 6018 North, and the Chicago bulb will find a home on multiple rooftops in Delhi. Rathore stated, “We are giving people a garlic bulb and asking them to grow it and monitor it for ten months, as long as the plants’ growth and seed cycle takes.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has not exactly endeared himself to many Chicagoans. Between bringing the NATO summit to Chicago and his attacks on CPS school funding and attempts to privatize public services in general, he has alienated large portions of the Chicago citizenry. Kari Lydersen, a Chicago-based reporter and author and former journalism professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, examines Rahm Emanuel’s career in her latest book. “Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%” documents the politician’s career from investment banker to Obama Administration Chief of Staff to Mayor of Chicago, as well as the rise of organized opposition to his administration.In late summer 2011, a short time after Emanuel took office, Lydersen was approached by Haymarket Books to write a book on Chicago’s new mayor. “I’m really honored they would think of me for such an ambitious project,” says Lydersen. “They were really forward-thinking — lots of Chicagoans are furious about [Emanuel’s] policies and understand where he stands in the bigger picture these days, but at the time most people were more ambivalent or uninformed about [his] ideology and background and what his leadership would mean for Chicago.”
As Lydersen began her investigations, she was determined not to write a book that simply vilified Emanuel. “I definitely set out to write objectively about Emanuel … though most journalists including me would admit that true objectivity is nearly impossible to define or achieve,” Lydersen says. “Open-minded is probably a better term.” However, as the investigation continued, she realized she could no longer keep her writing free of personal experiences.
She made the decision to include stories of people involved in political actions against the Emanuel administration. Lydersen used their stories to illustrate public frustration with a mayor who refused to listen to the people of Chicago. “The more I reported, observed, and talked with people, the more I became frustrated and in some cases even outraged — as an individual citizen — at the way this elected official was treating his constituents.” She tried to describe the scenes that generated these feelings so that readers could get a sense of the “dynamics and symbolism that upset me and the people I interviewed so much. … I tried to stick to that old journalistic adage of showing rather than telling.”
Emanuel and his administration have a reputation for being very closed to journalists, and Lydersen, too, experienced great difficulty in gathering information from Emanuel and his office. According to Lydersen, “Rahm Emanuel’s administration did not work with me at all on this, which I think is a shame and a facet of their overall lack of transparency or interest in dialogue. I would have liked to understand more about his own thoughts and approach, but I was not able to get that from him or his office.”
“Mayor 1%” also investigates the opposition movement Emanuel has provoked during his tenure as mayor of Chicago. Lydersen covers the high profile Chicago Teachers Union strike of last September and the ongoing conflicts over the fate of CPS schools and teachers. And she addresses the multiple anti-NATO protests that took place during the four days surrounding the summit in May of last year. Lydersen highlights one faction of Rahm resistance in particular: the Mental Health Movement, which she felt was somewhat overshadowed by larger acts of resistance. Lydersen calls the movement truly grassroots. “[These] people with very little economic or political power in the traditional sense … nonetheless have stood up in very brave, creative and effective ways to demand that their needs be met and that they be treated with dignity and respect. I think they are truly inspiring.”
In two years, Rahm Emanuel has already demonstrated his desire to privatize many of the city’s public services, like public schools and mental health clinics. Throughout the book, Lydersen explores his privatization agenda and the impact it has on many communities across Chicago. The author entwines the personal experiences of activists and community organizers fighting to preserve Chicago’s public services with investigations into the Emanuel administration’s policies. “Privatization is a complicated concept that can play out in different ways,” she says. “The privatization of the parking meters under Mayor Daley was disastrous in numerous ways. Rahm Emanuel is definitely a big proponent of privatization, though he is also aware of how opposed to privatization many people are.”
Lyderdsen covers Emanuel’s privatization of once-public services including health care, mental health clinics, janitorial service and, most prominently, public education. “Emanuel got much attention for launching the Infrastructure Trust, which he says is not privatization per se though it invites the private sector into the funding and operation of public institutions,” Lydersen says. “Public private partnerships can be positive … but privatization is a way to gut the whole concept of a public safety net and a social contract that promises to protect the most vulnerable.”
Chicagoans March Against US Intervention in Syria
Local residents gather at an August 29 demonstration to protest proposed American intervention in Syria. Photos by Tessa Elbettar.
The opposition to U.S intervention in Syria is widespread. According to a recent Pew Research survey, Americans, regardless of their gender, race, class, and political affiliations, tend to oppose US military intervention and would prefer diplomacy. Demonstrations against possible military intervention in the area have taken place across the country. On Saturday, Sept. 7, demonstrators gathered in Federal Plaza in Chicago to voice their opposition to U.S involvement.
“We do not think it’s a good idea for anybody to go into Syria for any reason. It would only add misery and more destruction,” said Janet Fennerty, former Chicago Public Schools high school teacher and veteran anti-war activist. “It’s just stupid…to think that it’s going to have any effect on Assad or the rebels. Either way, it’s the people who are going to suffer.”
“I’m afraid we might repeat history,” said former U.S Army Sergent Alejandro Villatoro, who served in both the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the War in Afghanistan in 2011. “This act of war could bring a lot of implications, especially knowing that Russia and China and Iran are supporting Syria…we cannot afford to send more troops, we cannot afford to send our military or take military action knowing that we don’t have the resources and we’re already involved in two wars.”
Villatoro and other protesters expressed their frustration with Nobel Peace Prize winner President Obama and his administration for wanting to engage in any military action in Syria. “We have elected a president that promised to withdraw from these wars and to bring peace, to bring hope,” says Villatoro. “But this is an act of war. He was not elected to take this type of action.”
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson recently wrote that the United States needs to intervene in Syria because, “somebody needs to be the world’s policeman.” This is an attitude shared by many mainstream news outlets, which also argue that a lack of intervention would make the US and the Obama administration appear weak. Other mainstream news sources believe the US must intervene in Syria to maintain its legitimacy as a world power, arguing it is the job of the US to make sure other countries abide by international law. Some of the protesters gathered Saturday disagreed with these assessments.
“That’s kind of hypocritical because we don’t abide by the law,” says Villatoro. “We invaded Iraq illegally and we haven’t received approval from the UN to take any military action in Syria.”
In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq under the pretense that Saddam Hussein had “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Iraq is still not confirmed to have had such weapons and many Americans postulate that the United States invaded Iraq to control its oil supply. Now the Obama administration claims that involvement in Syria is necessary because of Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians. Are chemical weapons the new Weapons of Mass Destruction? Syria, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, is not an oil-rich nation. But are there other reasons the United States wants to get involved in a civil war in Syria?
“It is strategically placed,” stated Fennerty. “It is in the middle of the Middle East. It’s a very strategic location and [the U.S is] also looking out for the interests of Israel, that’s for sure. So that’s another reason for them to try to take charge.”
“I think [U.S intervention] has a lot more to do with geopolitical consequences, having a government that’s opposed to Israel and is not a friend to Saudi Arabia, which are the U.S.’s allies in the region,” argues John Stachelski of the Chicago Anti-War Committee. “I think that [the US] does not want to have any opposition to their plans there. And there’s all this historical antagonism, especially between Saudi Arabia and Syria. It’s not necessarily about resources sometimes, or oil specifically…I think it’s a lot more complex than just a question of resources.”
On Tuesday, September 10th, the Obama administration reconsidered launching an attack on Syria. President Obama issued a speech regarding “the red line” and U.S plans to intervene in Syria. The administration has gone on to claim that it will place its strikes on hold if Assad surrenders his chemical weapons. Still, with no official diplomatic agreement reached, the US’s future in Syria remains uncertain. This makes it all the more important for these demonstrations to occur. With the Obama administration continuing to delay the use of military action in Syria, it could be the voices of protesters across the country that ultimately sway its decision in the direction of diplomacy.
The Third Anniversary of the March Against Rape Culture
Photographs by Tessa Elbettar
Hundreds gathered in Daley Plaza for Chicago’s third annual SlutWalk protest march on Saturday, September 7th. Created in Toronto, Canada in April 2011, SlutWalk marches have since spread worldwide, fighting to end rape culture, body shaming, and victim blaming. Protestors, both women and men, attend the event and dress their sluttiest, combatting the idea that how a woman dresses is an excuse or invitation to rapists.
The crowd was young and the atmosphere was energetic. Pussy Riot blared over loudspeakers as the march began. Demonstrators held signs bearing anti-rape messages such as, “Survivors Are My Superheroes” and “Yes means fuck me, no means fuck you!” Many women marched topless, wearing only bras. Some of them had words written across their bodies, spelling out “slut” or “still not asking for it.”
In the wake of the high profile Steubenville and Rehtaeh Parsons rape cases, coupled with the ongoing War on Women, SlutWalk is as relevant as ever. The Walk opened with a rally where rape survivors and allies of survivors gave moving and eloquent speeches. Erica Cribb, the first to speak, delivered a deeply personal speech in which she recounted her own sexual assault experience. “Ironically”, said Cribb, standing on the Picasso, addressing a rapt and supportive audience, “living through that experience was one of the most empowering experiences of my life[…]I had a far greater mission to fuel the fire of my existence. I don’t call myself a victim, I’m a survivor, and so are you. Use that adversity to fuel your fire, your passion. Spit in the face of your rapist, your abuser.”
The protesters that congregated at the base of the Picasso shared a similar sense of determination to turn the tide against a culture that perpetuates sexual violence and the idea it is permissible.
“We are in a society of victim blaming,” said Kelly Hayes, a survivor, supporter, and member and promoter of feminist vigilante gangs. “We live in a world where every day we are second-guessing every aspect of ourselves. That repression is rooted in a lot of things. It is rooted in capitalism, it’s rooted in the way the mainstream media markets these ideas, the way everything is marketed to us.”
According to Hayes, SlutWalk is an opportunity to undermine that culture of repression to create a new atmosphere of learning and liberation where women can come together and celebrate themselves and their bodies. “We are of no profit to the system unless we are constantly self-critiquing,” Hayes continued. “But here, we come together and form a moment of knowledge. All these forms of oppression, and specifically, the most obvious, sexual oppression, is not our fault and we have the right to express ourselves in any way without it being interpreted by the patriarchal society as an invitation or as an excuse.”
Alex Forni, a student from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, stated, “I think SlutWalk is an important march not only to raise awareness of the issues that face women on all levels regarding sexual assault […] but also to network with other people who have the same interests and create a bigger network to fight for the cause.”
Forni is a member of PACT 5, an organization dedicated to end rape and other forms of sexual violence on college campuses.
“We need to stop the way we talk about rape culture,” says Forni. “It’s not a joke. And, people that are victimized, they’re not victims, they are survivors. The way we talk about rape needs to change in order to change what rape culture is.”
Forni also stressed that it is important to remember that rape can happen to anyone, regardless of gender. However, though not every single rapist is a man, according to the United States Bureau of Statistics, 99% of rapists are male.
“The key is,” said Adam, a SlutWalk participant. “you have to speak to men. They are obviously the ones perpetrating [rape] and they’re the ones with the problem. You gotta gear your message towards men and changing men’s minds and changing masculine culture.”
“In terms of what men need to do,” said Kelly Hayes, “Allies need to get real about being allies because that it not something I see happening out there. You have men who talk about being enlightened, men who talk about how much they hate misogyny, but do they call their bros out when they make jokes they shouldn’t be making? Do they stand by the women in their communities when they speak up?”
Hayes and other demonstrators argue men need to stand alongside women and condemn sexist behavior for more widespread change to occur. “Until you have one [man] who is brave enough to stand alongside a woman and say ‘shame on you all, shame on you all, this should not be allowed,’ then folks start falling in line,” continued Hayes. “More people need to be more willing to be that first person to step up.”
SlutWalk and similar events are crucial in that they will hopefully prompt both men and women to stand up together and fight sexism and misogyny wherever those problems are manifested. SlutWalk is built on the coming together of women, men, survivors, and supporters who are determined to create real societal change. SlutWalk Chicago’s 3rd anniversary was a success with a large and enthusiastic turnout. The coming years will hopefully continue to produce larger crowds to further educate all on the desperate need to combat rape culture.
Which artist or celebrity would you most like to see speak at the SAIC graduation ceremony in May? Email your answers to email@example.com and we’ll publish the best ones.