Arts in the Parks: The People's Studio

“We’re bringing big mirrors to the spaces and places we work; supporting the community engagement process as agents of change to be ambassadors for the transformative power of the arts. We are here to activate public space by nurturing vibrant and interconnected communities. We provide a vision for public work through creative platforms that honor individual and collective experiences. Accessible Quality.” – Collective Visioning of Arts and Culture Team of Chicago Park District.

The Chicago Park District became a centralized system in 1934 during social reform and the settlement movement in response to rapid industrialization and urbanization that most impacted factory workers and immigrants. During this time, the parks served as spaces to find solace from issues in overcrowding, public health, and education by providing libraries, field-houses, gyms, green spaces for community and recreation. Programs and services such as healthcare, classes in English, dance programming, woodcraft studios, and music classes or simply a place to get a shower or a meal helped build a sense of belonging. This history guides the work of the Arts and Culture unit of the Chicago Park District—a team I was honored to be a part of from 2015-2018.

Cultural Center Network

The Chicago Park District maintains over 500 parks and over 250 field-houses. Of these, there are 15 Cultural Centers that act as hubs for arts & culture across the city’s 77 neighborhoods. Geographically dispersed across the city, each Cultural Center offers enhanced programming in arts and culture activities serving residents of every age with affordable offerings and events in dance, music, theater, and visual arts while also nurturing partnerships with local artists and cultural organizations. Each Cultural Center is different and works to reflect the distinct needs and interests of the community it is embedded within.

Under the fierce direction of Nikki Jolly, Leah Woldman, and Meida McNeal, I supported the Cultural Center Network through working with various Cultural Center communities to cultivate community-based arts and cultural programming. In this role, I contributed to the work of providing resources and planning projects, events, and exhibitions that reflected the vastly unique identities of each cultural center community. As the work is deeply collaborative, and made of a small (yet mighty) team, I also collaborated and supported the work of the Re:Center project. You can view field guide for this work here:

Artists in the Parks

Listening Sessions and Support

Uplifting the work of Chicago Park District’s cultural instructors started with a series of meetings to name the assets and the needs. In these meetings we set priorities together around curriculum, validation and highlighting of the work (feeling seen and heard), professional development, what collaboration could look like, limited capacities not currently understood across the district, sharing of resources, and marketing. The work that came after was strategic capacity-building and widening possibility. Outcomes that came from these meetings included:

  • Master classes to deepen craft
  • curriculum shares
  • open houses
  • discipline-specific events, exhibitions, field trips, and gatherings
  • more meeting times to build community
  • online sharing platform to cross-pollinate
  • highlighting cultural instructors in various public-facing forums

Park Portraits

During the Winter and Spring of 2015-2016, I traveled and collaborated with Sean Heaney of Inferno Mobile Recording Studio to document and archive the the work of Chicago Park’s cultural producers to bring awareness to their work and the resources available. These interviews were produced as Park Portraits. You can find more of that work and other Park Portraits through Inferno Mobile Recording Studio. 

At The Commons: Shape-Shifting: Resource Share at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

“All that you touch you change
All that you change
Changes you.”
– Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

Shape-shifting is the kind of magic that allows the body to take on new forms, transcend borders and barriers, and practice new ways of being. Chicago educators and youth regularly practice shape-shifting to both survive and thrive. How can we tap into our magic as shape-shifters for transformation? In a public program curated by Mallory Muya and hosted at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago arts educators came together to share facilitation strategies, curriculum-building processes, and lesson plans to re-imagine how personal and social transformation can be practiced through the radical and magic process of shape-shifting.

Master Classes

Through collaboration with various artists, the Arts and Culture team was able to hold various master classes held for the artists of the parks to deepen their practice. These included:

Exhibition & Installation Techniques. Ryan Education Center at the Art Institute

History and Techniques of Casting visiting artist Amy Santoferraro. Ridge Park Ceramics Studio

Wheel Throwing, Pit-Firing, and Raku. Athletic Field Ceramics Studio

Pedagogy and Practice of AfriCOBRE with Douglas R. Ewart. Mozart Park

Working with Natural History to Explore New Techniques, Installation, and Exhibition for Woodcraft. Field Museum

Wooden Artifacts. South Shore Cultural Center Gallery

Theater of the Oppressed. Pulaski Park

Pedagogy of Dance and Master Class Shorts in Contemporary, Break-dancing, and West African Dances. Pulaski Park

Open House, Open Studios

During Chicago Artist Month, the public was invited to the studios of cultural instructors to showcase their artistic achievements, offer studio tours, and highlight the resource of accessible cultural programming. 

Community Rhythms

Community Rhythms is a free day of dance in the parks with the goal of making high-quality dance programming accessible. Classes and performances were curated by the rotating Community Rhythms planning committee headed by Mallory Muya.

In Fall 2015, during Chicago Artists Month, under the direction of Meida McNeal and Angela Tillges, the Arts and Culture team co-curated and presented the exhibition Arts in the Parks: The People’s Studio at Truman College. In this exhibition, the work of cultural producers and community members who use the parks as their canvas, stage, and space for creative dialogue through mediums of data visualization and a series of interactive and participatory events to amplify the topics of community creative development, youth as public artists, and public play. These events included: 

Re: Center: Cultural Organizing in the Parks

What role do the parks play in neighborhood cultural organizing? What processes have citizens developed to shape the arts community within their neighborhood? Through an interactive dialogue co-moderated by DeShawn Green (Performing Artists from Chicago High School for the Arts) and Michael Rohd (Center for Performance and Civic Practice) with the citizens, artists, and park employees leading the work, three distinct cultural organizing projects in Englewood, Austin, and West Rogers Park were highlighted. These projects exist to re-imagine cultural priorities and programming that speak to the interests of each neighborhood.

In Our Own Words: Youth Development and the Arts 

Chicago is home to a vibrant youth development and youth arts community. We see the artistic work of young people on stages, gallery walls, and parks across the city but we rarely have the unfiltered conversation with the youth  to hear, in their own words, what youth value or find challenging about the work they do. In this unfiltered interactive discussion hosted at Austin Town Hall Cultural Center, participants were invited to engage with youth involved in several different arts projects as they performed, presented, and hosted an open-forum dialogue on their roles of development of arts in Chicago.

The Art and Nature of Play

In this public dialogue and community walk, participants were invited to discover the Art and Nature of Play at North Park Nature Village Center. Highlighted in the dialogue was the work of urban playground designers, academics, and curators; a tour of Walking Stick Woods and the year-round outdoor Forest Play School; and hands on play activities for children and adults. In keeping with principles of popular education, dialogue was shared through a fishbowl model rather than a panel with Chicago Park District’s Kidsmobile; Jim Duignan of a Plea for Playgrounds; FrankenToy Mobile; and Neighborspace Jardincito project. Participants were invited to enter in and out of the conversation in this informal but generative dialogue. 

Made Possible by the creative and dedicated work of:  Meida Mcneal, Leah Woldman, Nikki Jolly, Kimeco Robenson, Angela Tillges,Gibran Villalobos, Danielle Littman, Marcus Davis, Patsy Diaz, Sean Heaney, and Mallory Muya. The work continue to evolve in an evolving team.