Celebrating artists one block at a time

By Alex Stedman

Chicago’s many neighborhoods vary in architecture, atmosphere and the art made by their residents. This diversity inspired the theme of the 13th annual Chicago Artists Month, “Art Block by Block.”

Presented every October by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Chicago Artists Month celebrates the city’s thriving art community. This year the festival will explore how artists’ places of origin influence their work, offering a number of workshops, exhibitions and open houses hosted by 64 of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods, according to Barbara Koenen, a member of CAM’s advisory committee.

Koenen said this year’s theme follows DCASE’s 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan, which encourages residents and visitors to explore different parts of the city.

“The thing about Chicago, for many artists, is the accessibility to other artists is really great,” said Joyce Owens, a professor of art at Chicago State University and a member of CAM’s advisory committee. “This is a city that supports living visual artists.”

“Art Block by Block” doesn’t only look at how a neighborhood can affect art, but also how art can affect a neighborhood. Art can even have an impact on an area’s real estate, according to Owens. She used Wicker Park as an example of a neighborhood with a large population of artists who made it such a desirable place to live that it eventually became too expensive for many of them.

Owens acknowledged that Chicago is “notoriously segregated,” which she believes has had an impact on the city’s artistic community. But she also thinks that some neighborhoods are evolving and bringing art along with them, such as Bridgeport, which had a history of intolerance toward minorities. Now two of the neighborhood’s most prominent artists are Amanda Williams, a black painter, photographer and architect, and Luis De La Torre, a Hispanic painter.

Bridgeport is also a prominent part of Chicago Artists Month. The neighborhood was host to the Oct. 5 block party at three different locations to kick off the month’s activities.

“[Neighborhoods] absolutely will influence their art,” said Seana Higgins, one of CAM’s featured artists. “I think your influences throughout your life are just infused [into] the artwork you make.”

Higgins will co-host a workshop called “I Am From: Identity Through Exploration of Place” with performance artist Anne McNamee Oct. 13 at the South Chicago Art Center, 3217 E. 91st St.

Higgins and McNamee met in Chicago’s Wrightwood neighborhood when they were 6 years old. Higgins said this inspired their workshop, which will explore how artists’ identities are partially defined by where they grew up. The event will feature storytelling activities that center on neighborhood identity.

Higgins said growing up in Chicago drew her attention to the aesthetics of urban decay.

“I used a lot of deteriorating sort of themes in my work because I grew up in the city,” Higgins said. “It can just really inform the aesthetic choices you make because it’s where you feel comfortable.”

Chicago Artists Month runs through the month of October. For a complete list of events, visit ChicagoArtistsMonth.org.