21 August 2014

UIC Free Art School with Kevin Coval

As some of you may recall from a previous post, the school where I will be attending my grad program received a modest grant from the National Endowments for the Arts, and what they chose to do with the money amazed me. The grant afforded a unique experiment, the UIC Free Art School. The school was  free and open to the public on a first-come-first-served basis, and covered a wide range of sessions that included performance art, sculpture, painting, drawing, graffiti, and art history taught by leaders in the Chicago art world.  While most of the courses filled up in the blink of an eye, I managed to snag a spot on the Kevin Coval hosted Graffiti Walking Tour, and I will forever be grateful for the experience.

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We met in a UIC parking lot, made our introductions and hellos, then hopped into a 16 person van and set off on a bumpy funny ride to the Crawford Steel Company in Brighton Park. The street facing walls contain sanctioned murals, masterpieces done by working graffiti artists from the Chicagoland area. The walls have been given by Crawford Steel to the artists, and the walls are worked and reworked on an ongoing basis. Around the corner, we encountered the Crawford Mural house rules, which deal with respect, boundaries, and a hope that this space better fosters the graffiti community.

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Behind the factory and under a set of working train tracks are what Coval referred to as practice walls. While these aren't technically the same caliber as masterpieces behind them, they serve to act as a space for artists to work over ideas, images, colors, styles, words, and tags they are playing with. The evolution of these spaces is absolutely breathtaking, and it's merely by happenstance.

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The ground was a mix of persistent foliage and remnants of art supplies
We spent a few minutes quietly pondering the sanctity of the space, and it had never occurred to me that for something as ubiquitous as graffiti, that the community remains completely underground because the art they create is illegal. Issues of space, the definition of art and beauty, neighborhood politics, and anonymity came to the forefront of our discussion, as we trekked along the train tracks to a hidden spot where some of the real magic took place.

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Kevin Coval, our on-site lecturer and van driver for the day
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Behind the steel factory is this amazing hidden spot. Coval told us that this is a practice space, as well as a space where graffiti artists BBQ, hang out, and enjoy one anothers company. I pretty much swooned as soon as we walked out of the dense foliage on the right. Besides the occasional mosquito, this hidden site is perfect, breathtaking, and full of color.

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A character commonly found in the work of the artist Shel
As we walked along the side of the building, Coval pointed out names, shapes, and characters, sharing with us some of the stories behind the imagery. The artist Shel happened upon some books detailing the visual history of Aztec and Mayan cultures, and the influence he found in those studies began to enter his work on the street. This is one of the characters he developed, which bears a resemblance to the tribal masks and relief sculptures of the Mesoamerican cultures.

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Following our visit to Crawford Steel we made a quick trip to a space along the side of the expressway, which had a completely different vibe. This didn't feel so much like a community, many of the tags were rushed, some less-developed than what we viewed at the first site. This space contained gang graffiti as well, something we saw very little of over at Crawford Steel. The site itself was interesting though, I've driven by this September 11th Memorial countless times and had no idea that there was an entire wall of graffiti beneath it.

Upon reflection, this walking/driving tour of some of Chicago's graffiti hangouts was incredibly eye opening. I learned a bit about why artists write the way they do, learned a thing or two about anonymity and breaking the law, as well as the basic but monumental difference between gang graffiti and art. I think creating sanctioned spaces for artists to work like the Crawford Steel site shows a change in the mentality surrounding graffiti, and slowly over time graffiti might finally earn its spot in the hallowed halls of the art and museum world. Banksy and Shepard Fairey are just the beginning, but after what I saw and how I felt looking at these works has me thinking graffiti is just as relevant and talentful as much of what's happening in the contemporary art world. 

1 comment :

  1. Looks like so much fun! I wish I had known about this program, I'm over by UiC every day. Maybe next year. Looks like it was worth it.

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