Alt Space Chicago innovates how murals, photography can nurture communities

By Mateusz Janik, Echo Magazine

Alt Space co-founders Jordan Campbell (left) and Jon Veal (right) in Hubbard Park in Austin, a West Side neighborhood, for their first project, “Project Stamp.” Courtesy of Alt Space Chicago
Editor’s note: This article is one in a series of stories from the Communication Department’s award-winning Echo magazine,  featured this summer on the Chronicle site.

Jon Veal’s art and performances are grounded in issues of gender, race and politics, as he challenges his audiences to contribute to solutions.

With shows and exhibitions at Chicago Art Department, William Hill Gallery and Silent Funny, Veal’s notoriety as a Black, transdisciplinary artist in Chicago’s art scene grew. But he decided to change his focus and reach out to a different audience.

Veal was encouraged by the fact that there was an audience, but also felt “like the system that we were talking about, the things that we were challenging our audience to do, never left the gallery.” 

In 2019, he and Jordan Campbell, a close friend and documentary photographer, formed Alt Space, a faith-based nonprofit focused on changing the narrative of communities in the South and West Side neighborhoods of Chicago.

As Christians, Campbell and Veal say being artists is an extension of their faith, and they want to put those skills to use as selfless, yet tangible actions. 

Community members gather outside the Alt Space Market in Austin to pick up supplies and food, as well as gifts for children. Courtesy of Alt Space Chicago

Two years later, Alt Space Chicago has a far-reaching effect on the communities it serves — from teaching young adults how to express themselves through art and civicism, to creating food pantries and making photo murals of the people who live in those neighborhoods.

Although the duo has seen a lot of personal growth and success from the nonprofit, a lot can be attributed to the first project they released in September 2019 titled “Project Stamp.”

Friends and family encouraged them to become a for-profit organization in the beginning, but they wanted to follow through with their original promise of working within these communities while also acting as a charity. 

“We’re probably the only two Black dudes who started a nonprofit with no money,” Veal says. “We decided … we want to be a charity [because] it’s important that we reframe the narrative of what a nonprofit can do and what a Black-owned nonprofit in a Black space can be.”

“Project Stamp” is aimed at beautifying the community of Austin by offering to take free portraits of residents at different locations across the neighborhood.

Jordan Campbell (left) and Jon Veal (right) at work at the Alt Space Market in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago. Courtesy of Alt Space Chicago

A photo shoot was set up with a couple of mismatched lounging chairs and music playing in the background. People driving by slowed down to see what was going on, remembers Jai Jones, engagement specialist at Austin Coming Together (ACT).

Photos of about 100 families and individuals are still displayed as images on abandoned buildings in other Chicago neighborhoods and in cities including Los Angeles and Atlanta.

“[Residents] were kind of drawn to just the idea of someone doing a pop-up photo shoot in their own space that usually is not covered or highlighted or celebrated,” Jones says. 

When COVID-19 happened, Veal says they slowed down their work on the West Side of Chicago, while also switching their children’s program, C.L.A.Y. (Creating Live Art for the Youth), to an online format, renamed In the Cut.

Partnered with TRACE (Teens Re-Imagining Art, Community & Environment), Alt Space mentored six young people through photography and featured their work as part of a virtual exhibition on Sixty Inches From Center. 

Alt Space artist in residence Ebere Agwuncha designing community garbage bins for their new initiative, Alt Space []. Courtesy of Alt Space Chicago

While they only met together twice before moving to remote instruction, Marcus Davis, senior program specialist for the Chicago Park District, says both Veal and Campbell are a testament to how people don’t need a huge budget or big ideas to make a difference. 

“They had a way of working that has had to change dramatically, just based on what’s happening on the ground, and [I’ve seen] how they’ve taken the opportunity [to] not fall back but grow and expand on what they’re capable of doing,” Davis says.

Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people affected by police brutality, Veal says he and other members of Alt Space felt like they had to respond to the anger and looting that happened during the aftermath.

Created on Juneteenth 2020, the Alt Space Market in Austin was the first of several food markets and was built on abandoned property within five hours.

Alt Space is also continuing its Sunday Service community clean-up program with Alt Space garbage bins made from repurposed materials, designed by their artist in residence, Ebere Agwuncha.

“When a space is abandoned, with windows that are blown out, and there’s trash on the ground, there can be a perception and energy about that space that is unsafe, and neighbors might walk around or might not even want to go past there,” Veal says. “But when you live in a clean community, which we all deserve, there’s a dignity and respect that comes to the neighbors that you will have.”

The 2021 issue of Echo will be available this summer on newsstands across campus, and PDFs of all issues are available online.