Why I Painted “Collective”

This painting is based on a photo shot from the audience at the debut of the music video, “BeAware.” The video was produced on the sweat, tears, and bond of friendship between a diverse collective of artists and musicians in the heart of Chicago.  What I saw and heard and felt there that night would impact my life immensely.  It all began with a lost wallet…

In February of 2010, I flew from Sarasota to snowy Chicago to meet for three days with other people who practice Asset-Based Community Development and to discuss the creation of an “ABCD Center.”

My friend Jessica, an old buddy from New College, was my gracious hostess.  She lived in the mostly Mexican neighborhood called Little Village. Jessica, a native Floridian turned huge Chicago and Little Village fan,  took me to her favorite local place as part of my “tour”–Cafe Cathedral.

I found the interior of Cafe so amazing that I abandoned my wallet in a photo-taking haze. (see photos below) In the morning, I came back to the Cafe, hoping my wallet would be waiting for me.  It was.  I explained to the charming young man working there how I’d lost it.  He asked, am I a photographer?  “Well, it’s not exactly a job–it’s something I do.”  “Oh, a hobby?”  “Yes, I suppose so.”  He replied, “That’s a beautiful hobby.”  This stayed with me.

Later that day I returned, and got into  conversation with Marcos, another young man working the cash register about his hobby/passion of making music. Marcos invited me to a music video debut that evening.  I left with an address and the name “Black Gate Studios” written on my receipt.

I arrived at the North Chicago address that evening with my friend DeAmon (another community-builder who does amazing work with Broadway UMC in Indy.)  We pushed through the unmarked black gates with a feeling that this was the kind of place we wanted to know. Alongside the inner snow-covered courtyard was a fantastic mural full of color and depicting the faces of Aztec-looking Gods together with urban style decorations.  The inside door had no marking–again, we just pushed through and entered.

Inside, we met a sparse group, from teenagers to folks in their mid-to-late 20′s, some in their 30′s or 40′s.  The crowd was a mixture of races and ethnicities. There was a fantastic stage set up with a painted tree extending real branches outward. Art decorated the walls.  We mingled and learned that some were part of “Black Gate Studios” while some were just there for the show. DeAmon asked about BGS and learned it was a collective of visual and musical artists from the city working together to get good music and art out into the community. We asked, “Is there a person or group who organizes this–like, a leader?”  Their reply excited me heavily: “We all are.”

Various hip-hop artists performed. The crowd grew. The energy was electric, the performances passionate, lyrics ranging from playful to political to spiritual. Several times an older and younger person performed together and the younger person gave props to the older as his “teacher” in both hip hop and life. You could feel the bonds.

[jgallery id=”collective”]

Finally, the music video crew introduced “Beaware.”  To be honest, I was not expecting something of professional quality. Despite the high caliber of the hip hop I’d heard earlier, I was expecting it to be…amateur. Wrong!!! I was struck dumb by the outstanding quality of the video–the music and performing, the creative sets, directing and editing. As a final surprise, the credits revealed that the director and producer of this video was none other than Arturo Lizalde, the guy who had called my photography hobby “beautiful” at the Cafe the day before, as he handed me back my wallet.

Almost half a year later, I made this painting. I made it for various reasons…  To show my admiration for the efforts of these young creative people.  To express my solidarity with their struggle and vision, and my belief in the power of ordinary people creating something extraordinary together, starting with what they have.

I’ve always felt that the most amazing things happen not when a big organization is funneling money and expertise and publicity at an idea or a program. Rather, the most amazing things, to me, happen when people pool their ideas and resources to realize a possibility that excites them.  This experience reinforced my conviction that the most powerful resources we have  are our talents and skills, our personal passions, and our capacity to connect with others and work together toward a dream.

In addition to admiration, solidarity, I made this piece out of gratitude. Meeting BGS and witnessing the good, electric, inclusive quality of their projects had a huge influence on me.  It inspired me to take on the challenge of becoming a full-time artist in when my non-profit job ended; to begin organizing an artist’s collective in my town; and to focus my community organizing skills on the intersection of arts, community, and economy.  These ventures are now what make my life exciting and fulfilling.

…What things have you happened across that had a huge impact on you? How is that influence or inspiration taking shape in your life?

For more info: Black Gate Studios – http://theblackgatestudios.com

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5 Responses to Why I Painted “Collective”

  1. Jossie says:

    The painting is beautiful and I’m glad to be a part of your inspiration and journey. Indeed, Little Village (and Chicago) is my home, and I’ve met many beautiful souls here. To communicate that is a lovely thing, and is an example of the way things should be.

  2. Michelle Moreno says:

    AMEN SISTER “I’ve always felt that the most amazing things happen not when a big organization is funneling money and expertise and publicity at an idea or a program. Rather, the most amazing things, to me, happen when people pool their ideas and resources to realize a possibility that excites them. This experience reinforced my conviction that the most powerful resources we have are our talents and skills, our personal passions, and our capacity to connect with others and work together toward a dream.” I TOTALLY AGREE!!!!!!!! In my work in Systems of Care throughout the US things happen when people full of passion use their strengths and dreams to propell them forward. Not dollars – that helps keep people around but does not ensure change. Ultimately, it is the people involved and their ability to dream and DO that builds people, communities, ideas, etc. Thank you for sharing your work and most of all you EXPERIENCE. Thanks April – see you at the CLC meeting.

    • April says:

      Michelle – yes! and i’ve actually seen money drive people away. It’s definitely a balance but the question for me is definitely, what’s the kernel? the starting point? If it’s people, passion and gifts, the growth will be good. 🙂 It’s wonderful to connect with your experience in this!

  3. Corinne says:

    April, this is wonderful. This is amazing and so inspiring. Please continue on!

  4. April says:

    Thank you so much Corinne!!! I’m glad you like it 🙂 I will continue — please continue as well with your great creative mission!

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