Chicago Artists Explore The Impact Of Mass Incarceration | WBEZ
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Chicago Artists Explore The Impact Of Mass Incarceration

A group of Chicago artists will work with organizations throughout the city on art projects that look at how mass incarceration affects Chicago communities.

A nonprofit called Illinois Humanities, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, commissioned seven artists to work at what it calls their “Envisioning Justice” community hubs, located in Bronzeville, Back of the Yards, Little Village, North Lawndale and Rogers Park — the city neighborhoods Illinois Humanities says are most affected by incarceration.

The new project is an extension of a nearly year-old initiative, which also includes hosting events geared toward exploring over-incarceration through art and public humanities.

“If people think about justice, they think about it in different ways, depending on the lens from which they see it,” said Rufus Williams, president and CEO of BBF Family Services in North Lawndale, one of the organizations involved. “This project gives people an opportunity inside to look and think about what that would be for them if they could really envision what justice would be — different than what justice has been as it has been described and given to them.”

From left to right, Westside Justice Center executive director Tanya Woods, Westside Justice Center community organizer Monica Cosby, Metropolitan Planning Council director of research and Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks co-founder Dan Cooper, Office of Inspector General community engagement organizer Mariela Estrada, Loyola University Chicago graduate program director of the Department of Criminal Justice David Olson and City of Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson. These policymakers and researchers led policy speed chats at various tables during the event. (Arionne Nettles/WBEZ)

During an evening filled with performances and chats about policy, the commissioned artists joined researchers, activists, artists who teach programming for Illinois Humanities, and other community members Wednesday at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion to discuss the approaches and inspiration for their projects.

Rapper and poet Mykele Deville, who is also a teaching artist for Envisioning Justice, performs at the event. (Arionne Nettles/WBEZ)

It’s essential to the health of the five communities to allow those who live there to communicate their feelings about incarceration, said visual artist Sonja Henderson of Pilsen, who is working with BBF in the North Lawndale Hub.

“I think that what Envisioning Justice has done is create these really intensive, warm, inviting healing spaces, which are really important to our community and they're important to us,” Henderson said.

Henderson’s art project will be “justice-themed” and inspired by the conversations she’ll have at BBF with people who live in that community. The outcome will be a “multimedia” quilt with elements such as fabric, text and projections.

Art quilter Dorothy Burge, of Bronzeville, has been working on a memorial for the victims of former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge (no relation), who tortured over 100 black men. Her work with Bronzeville’s Bright Star Community Outreach will be a part of a larger partnership with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and will continue to reflect depictions of victims of police violence and restorative justice.

“The purpose of the quilts will be to educate about history and to inspire people to have discussions, and to take action,” Burge said.

Dorothy Burge described the push to recognize the infamous police commander’s victims as an “intergenerational movement” and said the art is especially important as Chicago Public Schools begins teaching its curriculum about police torture to the city’s eighth- and 10th-grade students. She said it will feature the survivors, their stories and also the stories of mothers who have been fighting for decades to get their children, who are now adults, released from prison.

“I am hoping that this series of art quilts will provide a historical context for what happened,” Dorothy Burge said.

The commissioned work will be featured in an exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries from Aug. 6 to Oct. 12.

Arionne Nettles is a digital producer at WBEZ covering arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @arionnenettles.

Correction: Vershawn Sanders-Ward's program is called "Making an Artivist."

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