Interview Issue 2017 | Interviews | Visual Arts

More Than Just Optics

The Englewood Arts Collective on making space for art in the neighborhood

Jason Schumer

The Englewood Arts Collective is a group of nine artists, working in diverse media, who came together earlier this year to influence public perceptions of Englewood and improve access to art within the neighborhood. I sat down with Collective members Tonika Johnson (a photographer), Janell Nelson (a graphic designer), and Joe Nelson (a muralist) to talk about the forming of the Collective and its plans for the future.

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Tonika Johnson: Most immediately we have our second group exhibition in November at Kusanya Cafe in Englewood, to kind of introduce ourselves to the community. Our first was in Lincoln Square.

Joe Nelson: We brought Englewood to Lincoln Square, which was kind of nice. We picked up everything and imported it to a new environment.

Tonika: And we had some really good conversations. There were people who were like, “Oh, I’ve never been to Englewood,” so it was really community building, talking about art in Englewood.

Janell Nelson: ‘Cause let’s keep it real: Chicago is a segregated city and that’s a whole other story on the roots of that and how it came to be. You can just drive through the city or ride the Red Line from one end to another and you’ll see the color change. And so it comes out in your interactions with different people from different neighborhoods, and they get shocked. On different sides of the city different people may never meet in ways that [they would in] another parallel cosmopolitan city, like New York. 

Tonika: Just identifying ourselves is like an act of resistance…. Just acknowledging that we exist and we’re from Englewood already is going to challenge the narrative, so hopefully from this point forward as we continue to evolve, no one will be shocked if they find out some artist is from Englewood, ’cause oftentimes growing up people were like, “Oh, you’re from Englewood,” and it was like…Yeah.

Janell: It was like, “Oh, I would have never guessed you were from there,” and I’m like, “Why?” There’s so much coded language that comes out in biases and there’s a certain perception of “the hood,” and what does that look like, and what do people look and act and talk like when they come out of that, and we’re just like, look, y’all, we’re here, this is what we do. We’re creative—

Joe: And just trying to build.

Tonika: And creative people are everywhere, and our community is not one monolithic thing. We just want to represent ourselves and give back and challenge what people think of Englewood.

We do want to focus on public art and beautifying our neighborhood.

Definitely I think all the things we do, regardless of the medium, can be transferred over to public art. I mean, [Janell] is a graphic designer, I would love for some video projections to be done; we have a poet—that can be displayed visually. We want to be able to have a public art project that we can do in the community.

Janell: Yeah, we have a lot of ambitions. One of our members, Felix [photographer and technician Felix Will]—this may be long-term—has some goals in regard to kids and youth programming, and we all are on board with that. We have to figure out what we do first and how we pivot, and we would love to eventually connect to schools, and I would love to have a typography seminar and, like, just talk about fonts.

Tonika: And we can definitely, because we are not establishing ourselves as some complete separate organization from the really good community work that’s already being done by RAGE [Resident Association of Greater Englewood]. They’re actually strong supporters of our organization because they realized they focused a lot on the traditional community activism and volunteerism, and none of them are identifying themselves as artists. So they want to support anything that we can come up with that would help the youth programming they’re doing. They don’t have an identified artist who they can lean on to do some art programming, so we would hope that we can be that group that provides different artistic programming for youth and adults.

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Tonika: It started on paper first. Open Engagement is an arts conference, where they host programming around a central theme, and this one that they had in Chicago was “justice,” and so I was really interested in hosting some kind of panel discussion. Once I started thinking about what would coincide with the theme, I came up with the idea that it would be cool if, you know, all of us Englewood artists got together to talk about challenging the narrative that currently exists around Englewood.

So I had submitted for us to have a panel discussion about Englewood, art, and challenging the narrative and we did the panel discussion and it was really great. A lot of people were engaged and wanted to get in contact with us, so after that it pretty much cemented the idea that this is like, for real.

Joe: And we had crossed paths several times before, just growing up and going to college and stuff.

Janell: A few of us have origins with Gallery 37, a Chicago arts program that started focusing on children and youth. We’re talking twenty, maybe even twenty-five years ago, we were all teenagers, and there was a Block 37 downtown—which is where that mall is now across from Macy’s. It was a vacant lot, and we had arts programming there. So we’re talking like years of people’s paths crossing. So Tonika started it, gave it a name, got some people together, and that’s how it started.

Tonika: Well, since we’re so new, we’re just in discussion about what we want to do first. We really wanted to focus on increasing access to art in Englewood and really complementing a lot of the community initiatives that are currently going on with art, ’cause that’s one area that isn’t as robust as everything else that’s going on.

Janell: I think our tagline as of right now is “Reframing the narrative from the inside out.” If you google “Englewood”—and some of that is changing right now, because of the current arts initiatives that are going on with programs and entities like RAGE and so forth—in general, the narrative of Englewood is not a positive one. We are not a people of a single story, and no one is, but I think I can kind of speak for the group when I say all of us are enthusiastic about just representing ourselves. We all hail from Englewood—some of us still live there—and it’s not a place of only negativity. There’s a lot of beauty that comes from it and still resides in it, and Tonika’s absolutely right when she says we want to make art more accessible and demystify it and use art as a catalyst for community engagement and community pride. It all feeds back into humanity, you know, like giving a humanity to people.

Tonika: We really want to provide a platform for artists in Englewood to be visible. We’ve chartered our own paths separately as individuals and artists, but we kind of had to do that outside of Englewood. We really want to lend that back to the community of younger artists who wants the opportunity to have a platform. I know personally, I’m telling y’all right now—I want to be able to have an actual space in Englewood, a multipurpose art space the community can access. Outside of Kusanya Cafe, there really aren’t many dedicated spaces for art to occur. One of our other members, Pugsley [street muralist and rapper Pugs Atomz], his mother used to have an organization that did art programming for youth in Englewood, but it doesn’t exist now. I would love to bring something like that back to Englewood.

Joe: That was one of the weird things about us connecting, too. Even though we were all from Englewood, we met each other outside of Englewood—we never really met each other inside of the place where we all stay. 

Tonika: I think the goals that we have are very realistic and can actually occur before all the other building up of Englewood occurs. I know they have this programming called the Thrive now, where they’re trying to reinvest in different businesses. That’s great, but in between, a collective like us can help get art in those places until then. I don’t think until then Englewood should have to look like a place without art until businesses start to come. So I think it’s very realistic, what we want to do, and we’ll eventually start seeing funding to do some little public art projects.

Janell: Yeah, little pop-ups and things—it starts with the artists. Look at what is happening with Detroit in another way, you know. A vibrant artistic community after economic ruin.

Joe: And Miami is the same way, and Boston’s the same way.

Tonika: It’s true. Art definitely adds value. That’s our contribution to adding value to Englewood.

Janell: And it can be an economic engine, too.

Tonika: And then to really normalize it, too. Most artists, when discovering they like art, are a little different than whatever group it is they associate with or identify with. So growing up on 62nd and Loomis I knew I was a little different, but I didn’t know that these people existed, that there were others—

Janell: Yeah, finding your tribe, right?

Tonika: Exactly, and I had to go to high school and college to be exposed to other people who were interested in art and then to find people who were from my community, I found out I wasn’t a stranger or weird. So by us existing, even if it were just by name only, to be able to let people in the community know that  it is normal to be a kid that likes to do murals, illustrate, graphic design, photography…If anything, I would love for us to be a part of normalizing that in Englewood, so it won’t look so crazy if you see a group of kids walking down the street with their cameras or talking about a website.

Janell: Or having a little meeting in the middle of the park that’s talking about some potential sculpture project. And one of many discussions we’ve had internally—so you’re catching us at the onset of the group, but I think that there’s an interesting intersectionality, or lack thereof, between art and class and especially art as a viable access point for career as a lifestyle. It can be much more than a hobby. It can be much more than, “Oh that kid can draw, oh that’s cool, what are you going to do for the rest of your life?”

As far as we’re concerned, to demystify means to just help shine a light on the many different ways you can define art. Art is not one thing; people are not one thing; we all have different career paths and different titles to ourselves. But art is more than just a career. It is therapy, it is something that can help a community feel proud and help reflect the communities to other communities. And it’s more than just optics. It’s a representation of a people.

The Englewood Arts Collective is currently building a mailing list and encourages anyone interested to sign up for information about future programming and community activism opportunities at englewoodartscollective.org.

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