Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Project | Neighborhood: The Way It Should Be

I met Theaster at an arts meeting five years ago. I was feeling a bit detached from Chicago’s contemporary art scene (with only dealing deceased artists). He was incredibly vibrant and open about his work, or rather, his stance on how he was creating his work. At that time he was weaving a multi-disciplinary dinner event that involved his ceramics (which the meals were served on), conversation between two unlikely paired groups (which were recorded with mics hanging over the dinner platform) and sumptuous meals prepared by a chef. Topics were doled out previously through a formal invitation to the Plate Convergences, a ritual gathering originating from Shoji and May Yamaguchi. (Hint: You must read for the full story). I was taken with this culturally rich vehicle for employing sound, sight, taste and touch – an installation performance based on real, palpable experience. I wondered why more people weren’t buzzing about his work. Then the storm came.

Yamaguchi slabs, wood fired, 2007

Having just returned from Art Basel Miami a couple weeks ago, Theaster flew immediately to Seattle to install his next project. As the recipient of the Joyce Award last year,  he directed and performed with a full choir in the Milwaukee Art Museum exhibit To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter. Exploring the legacy of a potter named Dave Drake, he created a world and voice for a ceramacist who previously didn’t have one. He’s also been chosen for the Whitney Biennale and is represented by Chicago and Berlin based Kavi Gupta Gallery.

Over the years Theaster’s continued to be a gracious host and artist, generous with his time and explanation of his current vision. His art and living experience are one in the same, something that -N- and I find to be integral to creating work. In 2009 -N- photographed the incredible donation of 14,000 books by Prairie Avenue Books to The Dorchester Project in the south side Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Particularly important in that donation was the focused inventory of art, architecture, design and photography literature. Volunteers helped to move it all to the live/work/design building at Dorchester and 69th Streets, updated with renewable and salvaged materials. (8,000 LPs were also donated from the former Dr. Wax Records, and 60,000 glass lantern slides came from the University of Chicago Art History Department). Today, the Dorchester Project houses an artist’s residency space in the attic (with a top-of-the-line tub!), a full library, a listening station and future opportunity for a communal kitchen where culinary artists can share their skills with the community. At Dorchester you can have dinner, watch a film series or take an art class. There’s always something happening for the children and people in the community which begets more happenings.

Studio space using salvaged materials

His name is synonymous with a movement of empowerment, activity and responsibility which he modestly cites as “everyday activity.” Check out the video “Try A Little Tenderness” to understand the Dorchester Project, a neighborhood encompassing initiative to share music, literature, space, design, architecture, gardening, experience, art – just share. 

Congratulations, Theaster, on all your success. And more importantly, we celebrate that the rest of us are engaging in the possibilities that you saw first.

-Y-

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