In a room in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, guests lined tables filled with magazines to search for pictures and words they wanted to add to a “community collage.”
The collage quickly filled as they added photos of brown faces and words like “improve Chicago violence,” “free,” and “culture” that they felt represented the civil rights movement — both past and present.
On a large pane of glass, the artist leading the collaborative effort, Shala., sketched drawings he felt represented Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
“I wanted to create a piece that commemorated Dr. King,” Shala. said. “But sort of in a new way, by saying the new Dr. Kings are (black women).”
The publicly created collage will serve as the background for the sketched piece. Like others created by Museum of Science and Industry guests, this work of art will have a home in the museum or in one of its offices.
The hands-on experience was part of the museum’s Innovation Studio, which along with the Juried Art Exhibition, makes up the museum’s annual Black Creativity program. Nearly 800 guests came through the studio’s opening day Monday, with the opportunity to also view Juried’s more than 170 works.
For Shala., a first-generation Nigerian-American who was born and raised in Chicago, it’s all connected.
“It’s all the same,” Shala. said, who’s best known for the creation of groundbreaking solar murals and sculptures. “Technology, art, culture, and music are all the same in my mind, and they all fuel each other. So it kind of makes sense that I’m here, but I would’ve never seen myself here.”
For three decades, MSI’s Black Creativity program has pulled together artists like Shala. every year with a mission to cultivate kids’ interest in science, technology, medicine, and engineering. The museum’s activities are a huge part of that goal and are designed to connect them to the exhibits they’re viewing, said Manny Juarez, director of science and integrated strategies at MSI.
“The idea is that not only are we going to have this great experience like the Juried Art Exhibition — in which we’re featuring fantastic, beautiful work — but how also, how can we then take that energy, that creativity, and turn it into a program where kids and guests can interact with the artists … and have a little piece as part of that Juried exhibit.”
Monday’s collaboration with Shala. won’t be the only hands-on event in the Innovation Studio. Activities will continue through February with guest designers and engineers, and special design-thinking projects for kids in which they’re asked to use everyday materials to create solutions to real-world challenges.
“We’re trying to get students to think about being innovators themselves: What does design-thinking mean? How can you apply that to not only solving a design problem but anything they may run into,” Juarez said. “It gets them to think differently, see the world differently, (and) we teach empathy with that.”
The Juried Art Exhibition is Black Creativity’s signature program. Established in 1970, its success encouraged the museum to add to the annual tradition and create Black Creativity in the 1980s. It is, the museum said, the longest-running exhibit of African-American art in the nation.
The annual tradition of bringing in works of art from African-American artists around the country continued this year. A panel of five judges had the “daunting task” of choosing what to display. The museum received over 300 submissions from over 200 adult applicants: They chose more than 140.
The exhibit also showcases teen work in its student gallery, which lies above the main floor. That gallery has more than 30 pieces, including from artists at local schools in need of supplemental arts education programs.
While walking through the exhibit, MSI arts and creative manager Tiffany Malone explained how many of the pieces reflected the artists’ own life and experiences: Everett C. Williams’ use of his own X-rays and MRIs in Looking In; Kyrin Hobson pulling in her Creole influences in Memories Shore, Our Lady of a House United, and St. Chlotilde and the Snake; Angela Redmond’s aptly titled self-portrait of her hugging art supplies, Pulling in the Work to Bring Life to an Idea Because You Decided the Way You Want to Live.
And at one of her personal favorites, Brian Golden’s Promises…promises, she paused.
“Most of his work has these figures in it. And what’s really cool is they all have a different expression,” Malone said. “When we looked at the artist’s statement, he really didn’t give us too much about who they are — they’re kind of mythic. My thought is that these are all personalities … different personalities, that I think, each of us has.”
The work is also personal for artist Rory Scott, who has two digital art pieces in the exhibit — both inspired by science.
“I do focus on the idea of time and change and also process,” she said. “Not just time-changing you and your environment, but what you can do to push yourself forward or change yourself. And sometimes it’s messy, and sometimes it comes out beautiful, and sometimes it’s a combination of both.”
Black Creativity’s Juried Art Exhibition and Innovation Studio will both be on display at the museum until Feb. 24.
Arionne Nettles is a digital producer at WBEZ covering arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @arionnenettles.