Arts Issue 2017 | Visual Arts

Life Practices

At Rootwork Gallery, two artists showcase the day-to-day of Englewood

Tonika Lewis Johnson

The alarms rings once at 7:30am, disrupting the morning quiet. Fifteen minutes and three alarms later, I turn it off. Then to shower, then to brush my teeth, to deodorize, to dress and pack up my knapsack for the day, and then to breakfast with the same two—sometimes four—people. Such is my morning routine.

It is easy to write morning rituals off as one of the mundanities of the human condition. Monday mornings bleed into Tuesday mornings, Tuesdays into Wednesdays, so on and so forth until the beginnings of these days are timeless blurs of unconscious movement. However, just as patterns and repetition are celebrated as key aesthetic elements of visual art and architectural design, so too can they be in human activity.

At the Rootwork Gallery in Pilsen, a new exhibition celebrates the beauty found in quotidian, repetitive human activity. Artists Tonika Lewis Johnson and Adrienne Powers collaborated on this project, aptly titled “Everyday Rituals.” A photographer and painter, respectively, the duo sought to capture and convey the aesthetic value of the day-to-day of Englewood’s Black community. The impetus for this project was twofold. Firstly, Johnson and Powers wanted to challenge the fetishized conception of Black life, especially in Chicago, as rife with despair and violence; they wanted to showcase the city’s average denizens, who live their lives in the best way possible. Secondly, the pair wanted to communicate the beauty found in the everyday rituals of the Black community. These desires took shape in a series of photographs and paintings of people going about their lives in a neighborhood falsely characterized, even by the president, as a warzone.

The exhibition takes the idea of repetition and harmony in routine and expands it beyond the aesthetic and into the personal. This union, of repetition and harmony, has a rich history on the South Side, where entire neighborhoods have been built around these values. In the early 1900s, investors sought to fulfill the needs of the expanding middle class in the city and created the now archetypal Chicago Bungalows—single family brick homes with large windows facing the street. Their design was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, which began in England in the late nineteenth century in response to industrialization, and which sought to turn back to the artisans and artists who crafted unique pieces by hand. This artistic school is known for its focus on the beauty of nature and its use of architectural features to emphasize a building’s surroundings. The Chicago Bungalows—uniform in their overall materials and design, but made all the more beautiful through their minute variations—are models of the values of this personalized, hand-crafted movement. In the same sense, the inhabitants of these homes, as well as many others across the city, find beauty in the tiny, quiet moments of the everyday.

Adrienne Powers

Adrienne Powers

I had the chance to speak with Tracie Hall, the founding gallerist and curator at Rootwork Gallery, about her inspiration for the exhibition. She brought together Johnson and Powers, having seen each artist’s work independent of the other’s, in order to create “Everyday Rituals.” In the new show, which she helped guide and formulate, she wanted to look at “the idea of engaging in rituals that are not necessarily named or recognized.”

Through the photography and paintings of the two Chicago artists, Hall wanted to showcase the unappreciated and unacknowledged beauty in the day-to-day activities of the city’s residents, especially on the South Side. As she wrote in the exhibition description: “It is through the quiet routines: the making of beds, the washing of clothes, the combing of hair, the blessing of food that we most completely profess our faith in tomorrow.”

Hall emphasized not only the beauty she felt expressed in these everyday rituals, but also a sense of spirituality in the traditions and rituals of Englewood’s community captured through Johnson’s camera lens. Hall also spoke a lot of the magic of the city. A Los Angeles native who spent most of her adult life on the East Coast, she emphasized how captivated she was with the beating heart of the Midwest. This exhibition, she says, captures just that.

It is not only the contents of the paintings and photographs that embody this unexpected beauty, but also the techniques and gestures of the artists themselves. In one of Powers’ paintings, Hall explained, crumbled flowers are used as a subtle accent. This element does take some effort to notice, but it represents the key message of “Everyday Rituals”: the beauty of the unseen in human activity.

“Everyday Rituals,” Rootwork Gallery, 645 W. 18th St. Through March 19. Free. Call for hours. (917) 821-3050. Attend an artist talk with Johnson and Lewis at Rootwork on Friday, March 10th.

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