Arts Education, Street Style

July 18, 2006

On a recent Monday, Jim Duignan, an associate professor of visual arts in DePaul University’s School of Education, was walking around with a contract in his shoulder bag. It’s from the university, and it would make the grassroots inner city arts project he’s been cultivating for a decade into an official center at DePaul.

Duignan, however, isn’t signing anything just now. “I think they’ll be surprised,” Duignan speculated about administrators, when they find out he hasn’t signed the contract.

For nearly his entire time at DePaul, Duignan has made a habit of picking elementary and middle school kids up off the corners, literally, of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods and hooking them up with local artists. “I’m good at introductions,” he says.

Duignan gives the kids equipment: microphones, radio transmitters, cameras, pens, paint, papier-mâché -- anything from which art can flow, or be recorded, broadcast, or captured. And now that the project has gained widespread notice among Chicago artists, Duignan says its no time to go mainstream.  

There would be certain benefits, of course, in selling out to the man, so to speak. Space, for instance. Duignan’s art project, the Stockyard Institute, is so named because it began in an abandoned building near the stockyards that were once part of the world’s largest meat packing district. The stockyards are credited with inspiring industrial assembly lines, perhaps not the classical halcyon setting for artistic endeavors, but Duignan is used to making art in Chicago’s nooks, crannies and back alleys.

At first glance, Duignan seems anything but radical. Blue jeans, leather sandals, short sleeve button-up to go with short brown hair. But he quickly becomes a snowball of enthusiasm, and his reverence for urban art forms is apparent from his language, dotted with references to “hip-hop composers” and “graffiti masterpieces.” Meetings among artists are sometimes brilliant, almost violent, interactions from which art is born: “collisions,” Duignan calls them.

That first building next to the yards, the old nuclear fallout shelter, is where Duignan started inviting artists -- around 150 of them -- to commandeer rooms and set up offices. Then Duignan would gather some local kids, a core of about a dozen Mexican young people at first, and bring them to the makeshift headquarters.   

Duignan was always thrilled to have any space at all. Even though, at one building he worked in, gang members, he says, would rappel in through the windows and vandalize the place. “They always left the art, though,” he says.

One of the projects begun in those early days, the “gang-proof suit,” has been documented by PBS, and exhibited internationally. Duignan said the Stockyard Institute is about giving kids a place to explore “that wasn’t home and wasn’t school.” One day, he asked the kids about their fears. A boy replied that he feared being shot in the back accidentally on the way to school.

“What would make you feel differently?” Duignan asked. And thus the gang-proof suit was conceived. Eventually, the kids researched materials that would block stray bullets, and drew pictures and schematics and constructed models of the suit, which makes the wearer look much like a slick, urban version of a medieval knight, backpack in tow, of course. The forsaken building was soon festooned with pictures.

“It might look like radical pedagogy,” Duignan says. “Maybe it is. These kids have a lot to say. They’re emotionally filled up.”

The gang-proof suit project began about eight years ago, Duignan says. Duignan had never officially asked to take over the building -- “if you ask, they usually say ‘no,’ ” he says -- and his crew got kicked out after a few years.

In the ensuing years he ran the institute from a motley assortment of locations: public parks, his car, an abandoned shoe store, two classrooms in an elementary school.

All the while, Duignan expanded his reach to new neighborhoods, including the predominantly black Austin, where he went after the stockyards. “It was like going from gang-land to drug-land,” Duignan says. He recalled a naked man running across the street with a gun. “An interesting image," he says.

In one of the Austin projects, Duignan enlisted artists to redesign the existing Austin walking tour conceived by the Chicago Park District, which pretty much amounted to a stroll around a building and some dumpsters. Students, kids, community residents, and artists peppered it with more interesting visuals, and even performances, and Duignan drove around in a 1964 Corvair van -- bearing an “Austin Tourist Bureau” logo -- and picked people up to give them tours.

In another project, Duignan hoisted an antenna in a tree and started broadcasting a radio station with his kids that was just powerful enough to make it down the block. That was powerful enough, however, for some parents to hear what their kids were up to.

Duignan estimates he’s worked with about 150 kids a year, some from neighborhoods with murder rates that are consistently near the top of the national list, for each of the last 10 years. A couple of those kids have now begun to dribble in to DePaul.

Before the whole question about why he’s doing this can even get out, Duignan, the son of a Chicago cop, shakes his head knowingly and explains that “art saved my life.” He dropped out of college and drank too much while roaming the same Chicago streets he now roams as an artist, he says, but art was the one constant that made education ultimately relevant to him.

One of Duignan’s most active kids, Davion Matthews, who Duignan found eating a sucker on the curb as a sixth grader, is now a high school student and is planning to come to DePaul to study film.

A few years ago, a Nebraska family that wants to remain anonymous took notice of Duignan’s work. The family gave $100,000 to the Stockyard Institute; enough for more than a few sketchbooks, digital cameras, radios and the Corvair. “There’s nothing worse than a rogue artist with money,” Duignan says.

One of his most recent projects is the production of a sharp, two-part bi-annual newspaper produced by an amalgam of artists, educators, activists and kids. The paper, AREA (Chicago/Art/Education/Activism), goes in depth on topics like community art and local environmentalism, and is speckled with haunting black and white photos of graffiti memorials and concrete landscapes.  

Duignan says that he’s had little luck getting his faculty colleagues to participate, but that he’s been getting his graduate students, who are training to be art teachers, more involved with the institute. Duignan worries that tenure mania and cost cutting have reduced the urban engagement of institutions, even those like DePaul, which has long had a social service mission. In fact, the past academic year was a bad one for urban engagement nationally, as some institutions eliminated programs focused on serving inner city populations. DePaul, which Duignan says initially would give him no support, recently told him to just sign on the dotted line. “The Stockyard Institute of DePaul University,” Duignan tests it out loud. “That doesn’t sound right.”

Duignan is wary of becoming institutionalized. He recalled going to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and seeing that the space was being used for speed dating. “This used to be a cutting edge place with critical round tables,” he said. Still, if DePaul eventually throws in, say, full scholarships for some of his kids, he’d consider it. For now, though, his reaction to signing is much more rogue-artist-with money. “Are you nuts?” he asks. With or without institutional support, Duignan’s message to his kids is, “I’ll work with you as long as I live,” he says. “This isn’t like a grant that runs out in two years.”

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