When I first moved to South Chicago, I had little knowledge of the area’s history and its residents. I spent the first couple of months walking around, trying to get a feel of the area’s cultural background and activity (as any flâneur would). At times I thought about Sandra Cisneros and Gwendolyn Brooks, in their ability to capture the essence of life in their neighborhoods. Cisneros wrote about her personal experience in Humboldt Park and Brooks wrote about urban life in Bronzeville. As I walked around the streets of South Chicago, I asked myself: “Who’s writing about all of this?” There was so much happening that needed to be captured.
Throughout the neighborhood I found familiar faces in the friendly business owners and my neighbors. But, what remained a mystery to me were the plaques and art structures that graced South Commercial Avenue and East 93rd Street. I saw a mix of pop art and cubism that entertained my wandering eyes. Playful street installations, for children to duck and hide, and ornamentations on houses made reference to urban life and my personal interpretation of Latinx and African figures. The more I fixated on the designs, I began to realize that they were narrating life here.
Over time, my interest in the public art in the area grew. But, the artist remained unnamed. It wasn’t until I read about the “Who Tells Your Story” project coming to South Chicago, that I was then able to identify the mysterious artist whose presence was established throughout the area as Derric Clemmons of South Worx Arte Group.
Over the past years Clemmons has worked in South Chicago with youth from surrounding schools and the nonprofit organization Sky Art, and empowered them to reclaim public spaces with their art. His recent collaborative Urban Trees project down Commercial Avenue, an additional part of the “Who Tells Your Story” Alfresco project, has enhanced the pedestrian nature of the street. The installation, on the 8900 block of Commercial., orchestrates joy and pride in the area, with art that feels true to the nature of the neighborhood, like the flags of Humboldt Park’s Paseo Boricua and the Little Village Arch.
“Steel is a grounding point for what the neighborhood stood for,” said Clemmons,
Walking down the Commercial Avenue business corridor, the colors of the Alfresco project floated off the ground and the brightly painted steel trees guided my eyes. My ritual visits to La Fruteriafor Caribbean delights were an opportunity to gaze upon new details of the Urban Trees and their link to artists from different parts of the city; each tree features a rotating selection of art by other artists branching out from the structures. With this project Clemmons has merged industry and nature, and created a new context for which South Chicagoans can occupy public space, lounge upon the benches, observe art freely, and experience its inspiration.
Right now, Clemmons is in the process of installing his latest project, the Talking Tree, which aims to activate the space between South Chicago and South Deering underneath the Indiana Skyway. When I asked about future plans, he mentioned a potential art project to activate at Bessemer Park and of course, the help of neighborhood youth.
South Worx Arte Group is on Instagram @swag_worx and at southworxartegroup.com/contact. Any local artists and youth are invited to reach out to join South Worx Arte Group as apprentices.