Rod Sawyer

Three years ago, Zoe Nyman started organizing successful open mics and backyard events in Bridgeport, but it was only last October that the Backyard Series took shape. That was when Nyman collaborated with musician and designer Landon Tate to bring around two hundred people to an open mic, poetry, and music event titled “The Backyard Series” located in Nyman’s backyard in Bridgeport. The project grew quickly since its launch in the fall, expanding to institutional venues such as the Experimental Station in Woodlawn. Over coffee at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Nyman sat down with the Weekly to talk about the project’s origins, accomplishments, and ambitions for the future.

The Backyard Series is an event-organizing project, featuring poetry, visual art, and musical performances, particularly hip-hop. The project aims to create platforms for artists in environments of respect and community, where no gates are kept, and no one is turned away. “I didn’t understand why it was so hard to make a stage for someone,” Nyman recounted, “and I had the opportunity of a literal stage in my backyard to do it.”

In November, the Backyard Series organized the event that launched Satellite, another new space in Bridgeport. The launch involved four musicians and hip-hop artists, four poets, four visual artists, and various DJ sets distributed throughout the venue and throughout the night. The line-up was balanced—seventy-five percent artists of color, twenty-five percent white, fifty percent women, fifty percent men—and reached beyond the elite art school circuit. Both Nyman and the Satellite residents recall the atmosphere of respect and celebration that marked the event. For Nyman, the launch meant an expansion of the project, out of the backyard, and into new categories of art. It was also where she started “50EACH,” a series of flyers featuring the artists on the Backyard Series and distributed for free during events.

In February, the Series scaled up further with two larger events in the context of Black History Month. Nyman collaborated with hip-hop artist Ano Bank$ to host “One Drop: A Celebration of the African Diaspora,” which brought music, visual art, live painting, dance, and gastronomy to the Experimental Station. Just a week later, the Backyard Series organized an open mic night and seven main acts with Black performers at the Hairpin Arts Center, located in Logan Square, in conjunction with the exhibition “Don’t be Scurred: Pathways to Liberation.” Since the exhibition had featured so many people related to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the organizers of “Don’t Be Scurred” wanted to work with Nyman on creating an event that brought artists from outside of the dominant art school network.

Nyman is proud of how much the series has grown: “To go from the backyard to the friend’s living room to Experimental Station and Hairpin Arts Center, on two sides of the city, [to the] Woodlawn-Hyde Park area to Logan Square—I mean, it was a feat”.

She emphasizes the importance of other people in this growth. The poet and performer Tyyuhnuh has introduced her to new poets, while other connections have introduced her to new talent—Avantika Khanna facilitates equipment for the events. Her friend Jihoon Woo voluntarily edited the high-quality promotional video documentation for the event at the Hairpin Arts Center. Since October, Nyman has worked with forty-five artists, with twelve more coming for her next event.

Next up, the series is going back to the backyard for an event on April 20, featuring a band, hip-hop, poetry, food, and other acts. Bank$ has become a close collaborator, and Nyman is planning the release for his new mixtape. She will also collaborate with Monarch, an art and wellness fair celebrating femme, queer, and non-binary makers at the Hyde Park Art Center in June. According to Nyman, the Backyard Series is moving towards community-building and full-day events that are open to different ages, with food and a variety of activities. For summer and fall, Nyman wants to throw a block party in Bridgeport and to gather open mic and poetry collectives for a festival, what she calls “a Pitchfork for the underdogs.”

Nyman also plans to improve the design and production quality of her shows. Her goal is to turn 50EACH into an accessible online publication, where artists and organizers can gain permanent recognition.

Nyman projects closing out her work on the Backyard Series by the end of this year but that will not be the end her work as a creative organizer, nor will it stop the work begun by the project. “In a lot of ways, Backyard Series is just a stepping stone for all of us,” she says. The lasting collaborations forged by the Series and the incoming requests that she receives might be a recognition of her abilities as an organizer—but for Nyman, “it is a bit more than that, too. It is all sort of surreal, right? But I think there is a new renaissance emerging. And I want to be as much a part of catalyzing that as possible.”

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Marina Resende Santos is a contributor for the Weekly. She works with art administration and research in the humanities and graduated with a degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago. Her interviews with artists and organizers have appeared in Lumpen Magazine and THE SEEN. This is her first story for the Weekly.

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