The Chicago Public Library’s inaugural artist-in-residence knows engaging communities in the creation of art requires intent.
“Every community in Chicago is not the same. So when I’m tasked with doing community engagement, the way I do that on the South Side is not the same as how it’s done on the West Side. It’s very important to keep in mind,” said Alexandra Antoine.
Antoine took on the mantle in March, working from the Legler Library in Garfield Park thanks to a collaboration between the city’s public library system and Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Her two-year term gives Antoine — and the Garfield Park community — a chance to promote connectivity in the library while creating public-facing art representative of the neighborhood.
Antoine is an interdisciplinary artist. She said her past experiences with community involvement and engagement made her stand out during the selection process.
“There’s always been a component of my practice that has involved community, whether it’s young people or just adults of various ages,” Antoine said. “I think some of the folks who were in the room during the selection process were familiar with my work and how I work. They know what I’ve done before and my commitment to the work that I do.”
Antonie described her art as bright, colorful and full of positivity.
“You’re gonna get some Haitian culture, because I just gotta represent my people. We are proud people. I have to represent that in painting, in food, things that I do,” she said. “My art also asks you to reflect on things. I make people look at different things in a different way. Wherever I have an idea, the medium that it comes out in is not as important, I just have to get the idea out.”
She uses many mediums to express herself, including painting, sculpture, beadwork and food. She’s a self-proclaimed farmer.
“To me, that’s gifts and talents from my ancestors,” Antoine said. “Last year I started taking pictures of myself with my harvest because I want kids to see they could also be growing food. You don’t have to wait or go get an agricultural degree. You could do this now.”
As she embarks on the residency program, she really wants to collaborate with the community and staff at the library.
“The No. 1 important thing for me is building relationships with people in the community, with folks who have been doing work here for 20, 30 years and seeing what they’re already doing and how I can either add to that or help develop them,” said Antoine. “Even talking to the staff at the library, they are all so different and all have stuff to offer. But it was very important for me to build relationships first.”
Antonie worries about the mindset of one person changing the community through art or through their community engagement. She doesn’t think it’s that simple.
“For me, it’s very much about building relationships,” Antoine said. “I’ve enjoyed talking to groups who have been around Garfield Park for years, making it like a two-way thing, so that it also doesn’t feel like, ‘OK, we’re bringing in an artist, she’s just gonna change things and she’s gonna bring stuff.’ No, I’m actually gonna work with everyone and work alongside them to help create these visions.”
Looking ahead, Antonie hopes to continue experimenting and evolving. She wants to continue working with the Illinois Humanities initiative Envisioning Justice, an organization that works with communities and people impacted by incarceration.
“I’m very interested in growing food again this year. I have a couple plots at some community garden spaces in Garfield Park. I like being around a different set of gardeners and people who have all interest levels and foods.”