Post-Tribune - - News - JERRY DAVICH [email protected]

Fill­ing neg­a­tive spa­ces.

This is the most in­trigu­ing ini­tia­tive of Imagine Gary, a cre­ative arts com­mu­nity ser­vice project that kicked off Satur­day at the junc­ture of vol­un­teer men­tors and city youth.

Ac­tu­ally, it took place at the in­ter­sec­tion of 15th Ave. and Mas­sachusetts St., where dozens of tal­ented Gary res­i­dents, ages 17 to 25, joined a hand­picked team of work­ing pro­fes­sion­als.

It didn’t mat­ter that it was hot, hu­mid and threated to storm. Or that some of the youth were paint­ing a mu­ral for the first time. What mat­tered is that they filled neg­a­tive space there, as well as, hope­fully, in their minds.

“We’re here to not only beau­tify our com­mu­nity but also to em­power and in­spire our youth,” said Ali­cia Nunn, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the pub­lic ser­vice group ARISE (Ac­count­abil­ity – Re­spect – In­no­va­tion – Suc­cess - En­trepreneur­ship). “We wanted to ex­pose the kids to the his­tory of this prop­erty but also to the hope for their fu­ture.”

Through cre­ative “place mak­ing,” they painted mu­rals at the Ste­wart House Ur­ban Farm and Gar­den with help from Cre­ative Ini­tia­tives for the Pub­lic Space, LiveArts Stu­dio, Christ United Methodist Church and a pro­fes­sional artist, Ish Muh­hamad.

“These kids are great. They’re tal­ented and ea­ger to ex­press them­selves,” said Muh­hamad, of Ham­mond, who’s been cre­at­ing cut­tingedge art projects for three decades.

Last week, he led the group in a stu­dio work­shop, teach­ing them how to paint the mu­ral on Satur­day. This group of young Gary artists-in-the-works in­cluded Jerry Crisler, Justin Brooks and Martrell Por, who dripped both sweat and sat­is­fac­tion from their ef­forts.

The prop­erty at that cor­ner is owned by Christ United Methodist Church, where mem­bers plant and har­vest sus­tain­able food for the com­mu­nity. The site is the for­mer home of the Ste­wart Set­tle­ment House, which for nearly 50 years shel­tered and aided blacks who mi­grated from the south to Gary for steel mill jobs.

“The church started this gar­den and we wanted to spruce it up with this art project,” Nunn said as kids took turns to paint a 40- by 10-foot metal stor­age con­tainer.

“Be­fore this mu­ral was painted, this con­tainer was just cov­ered with rust,” said Dionte Glover, an ARISE board mem­ber and youth co­or­di­na­tor.

Glover also is co-owner of 444 Grill in the Miller sec­tion of the city, which houses weekly per­for­mance arts shows by the youth. His job, in part, is to pol­ish their nat­u­ral tal­ents through var­i­ous arts, such as po­etry, rap mu­sic and even play­ing spoons.

“I just stand back, coach them and watch them take off,” he told me. “I al­most came to tears when I watched them put all their skills and tal­ents to­gether for that last show.”

The over­all project was in­spired by a Mon­treal-based, multi-artist col­lab­o­ra­tion that drew from youth cur­ricu­lum, ti­tled En Masse Pour Les Masses. Through sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives, that group has hosted mu­ral projects at The School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago and the Univer­sity of Chicago.

The con­cept is for par­tic­i­pants to be given the op­por­tu­nity to work col­lab­o­ra­tively on large-scale blackand-white pro­duc­tions, guided by artists who take on a men­tor­ship role, Nunn said. Their hands-on ap­proach al­lows artists to em­power, in­spire, and pass-on knowl­edge to all those in­volved. In turn, par­tic­i­pants de­velop a sense of own­er­ship, pride, and am­bi­tion for their own per­sonal prac­tice, she added.

The new Imagine Gary project swirls to­gether re­sources from sev­eral groups on the same pub­lic pal­ette. This in­cludes Cre­ative Ini­tia­tives for the Pub­lic Space, an or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to arts-based so­lu­tions for com­mu­nity pros­per­ity and so­cial good, and LiveArts Stu­dio in Gary.

“This style is sim­i­lar to the way I teach my art classes,” said owner De­sire’e Simp­son.

She helped the youth create sym­bols, im­ages and words to il­lus­trate what the ur­ban gar­den at that site rep­re­sents, both its past and fu­ture. This was first done on a draw­ing board where stu­dents learned how to fill neg­a­tive spa­ces, both ar­tis­ti­cally and then philo­soph­i­cally.

“We have a beau­ti­ful as­sem­bly here of what ev­ery­one contributed,” she said while over­see­ing the mu­ral project.

An­other key as­pect of the project is to mix to­gether dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions of artists, men­tors and vol­un­teers, each one us­ing broad brush­strokes of their ex­pe­ri­ences. There are sev­eral sim­i­lar mu­ral projects in the works, with the next one sched­uled for Au­gust.

“We’ve been talk­ing about do­ing some­thing like this for a year,” Nunn said, us­ing an um­brella to shel­ter her from the sun. “This is the new legacy we’re try­ing to create here, to re­vi­tal­iz­ing Gary one neg­a­tive space at a time.”


Gary youth and their cre­ative men­tors paint mu­rals at the Ste­wart House Ur­ban Farm and Gar­den on Satur­day.

Ali­cia Nunn, from the pub­lic ac­tivist group Arise, di­rects Gary youth to paint mu­rals at the Ste­wart House Ur­ban Farm and Gar­den at 15th Ave. and Mas­sachusetts St. on Satur­day.

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