Cara Michell is an urban planner and artist in New York City. In 2015, she co-chaired the inaugural Black in Design Conference at Harvard University, which sought to recognize the contributions of African Americans in design professions and highlight the responsibility of designers to address structural inequality and institutionalized racism in their work.
Artist Brandon Breaux had a revelation: He didn’t have to leave Chicago’s South Side to do something extraordinary.
Brandon Breaux, who is perhaps best known as the artist behind Chance the Rapper’s three mixtape covers, is part of a new generation of artists and innovators who are reshaping perceptions about what is possible on Chicago’s South Side. Breaux’s oil paintings, t-shirts, and neon installations tell the story of a neighborhood, Greater Grand Crossing, that is already rich in its sense of place and community. It is grounded by architectural staples that have now reached folkloric status, like Harold’s Chicken or Pride Cleaners. And a powerful network of creative changemakers surround Breaux on the South Side: Artists and designers such as Virgil Abloh, Kerry James Marshall, Amanda Williams, Eric Williams, Theaster Gates, and, of course, Chance the Rapper. The work of some of these people, who engage in art, architecture, and social programming, stands in contrast to projects like the High Line in New York, which have been criticized for inciting gentrification through design and programming that caters to tourists more than the local community.
Their work reaches deep to reveal the profound sense of place, social capital, and cultural value that already exists in this neighborhood. It’s also driving a new Chicago narrative that has the potential to overshadow the one-dimensional, often racially charged misrepresentations of the people who live and work here. In this context, Breaux’s art weaves together the stories of this web of strong, mostly African-American, cultural forces who have become vanguards in architecture and the arts, despite years of disinvestment, and here’s why: because the place is already there and it's up to the people who know it best to reveal it. Following his presentation for the 2017 Black in Design Conference at Harvard, Brandon and I caught up to discuss his own journey towards becoming an artist rooted in the South Side:
Can you describe Greater Grand Crossing as you remember it from childhood? Where were your favorite places to go? Who did you spend the most time with?
It was a place where you were always reminded to be safe. We didn’t go anywhere that was over a three-block radius. The neighborhood park was close and that was the furthest we’d venture out. When I started going to school, I was able to go a little further. I went to school in Chatham, so I remember walking through the Chatham neighborhoods on my way to school as a child.
You know, a lot of people died, a lot of them right after grammar school, and in high school. A lot of people got shot. I used to hang out with my best friend Mario as much as I could in grammar school, but he died of cancer our sophomore year in high school. Before he died, one of his best friends got shot accidentally because a kid had a gun that he was playing around with—shot him on his front porch. The numbers dwindled quick. It was older people dying too early, in their 50s and 60s, and young people dying before they had a life.
High school was a bit different because I connected with lifetime friends through Hip Hop, which was our arts and culture. That was the experience for me. I didn't have anybody close to me that worked a real profession or did something that felt really important in the world. So for us, the aspirations were only real to a certain extent. The hope and examples of what we could have been weren’t in our lives.
What was it like as a Greater Grand Crossing native to see spaces such as the Stony Island Arts Bank come back to life in your neighborhood?
The work in Great Grand Crossing hits home because it's literally where I'm from. I've been an artist since I was born, but I feel like, with cultural identity, sometimes things are assigned to you. A lot of growing and developing was convincing people what else I had to offer besides what they expected from me. I didn't necessarily relate to everything that you would expect a young black kid from the South Side of Chicago to be into… I felt like, “Nah man. It's much bigger than that. I'm a real person not your stereotype. No, for real. I'm a person!”… I didn’t feel the need not to have my work be grounded so much in where I'm from or my cultural experiences because I didn’t want it to define where I could go. I couldn't resolve that within me as a younger artist or creator, so I wanted to extend beyond it. That was the only route that I was taking to deal with it. It began to change as I matured.
When I encountered Gates’ work and similar work where people are doing things within communities to make a statement and to bring something else to the areas that you are from, it was relieving because it makes you look at the space differently and makes you think about those things differently.
You made a clear transition from trying to escape through your art and entrepreneurial work to appreciating and honoring your home in your art. What are some of the decisive experiences that catalyzed that transition for you?
My spiritual journey, and when my professional work started to evolve and I really started to understand the power of culture and community. Another big one is seeing work from other artists in the area. When I saw [Theaster Gates’ and Amanda Williams’ work], or when I saw my community re-contextualized in one way, I said to myself, “Ah, I get what I was missing. I get what I wasn't seeing.” We can't see everything from every angle at once. A lot of times, something needs to happen to trigger it. And that's called inspiration. Tons of things led up to that realization. And when I tried it on—that glove or that suit or whatever—it fit really well. That's why I knew I was going into the right space. Because my spirit was responding and the world was responding.
Before then, there seemed to always be a choice between: “Are you going to move away and do really well, or are you going to stay here and be mediocre?” The option was never to stay home and be extraordinary, or stay in this place and make it extraordinary. [You need to be] able to construct the future or design the future freely without the baggage of the past or the baggage of what people say about a certain area. For me, Gates’ work gave me the opportunity to do that. Amanda’s work as well. It felt like, “Ah, I get it. I get why my mother bought a home right next to my grandfather’s.” And I was kind of upset when she bought the house [in Greater Grand Crossing], but then if you think about it, what else could she really afford in a so-called ‘safe neighborhood’? Then I realized, she don't care about that. She cares about where she's from and she's dedicated to her community. Even though her other sisters and brothers moved away.
Why do you include allusions to Harold’s Chicken and similar places in your work? Is it simply a signifier for the South Side or something more? Why not contemporary places?
There are a lot of artists and people from younger generations who create the art that draws from contemporary places and spaces. It's great that it exists. When it comes to my community, a lot of things therein seem like a fairy tale that's long gone. I remember when there were all African-American businesses on 79th Street. My mom would say, "I remember when Ali would jog up and down the street.” He used to live in the neighborhood because he wanted to live with the people, and because other places at the time didn’t want black folks there. A lot of those things seem like myths and fairy tales in some ways. Now the people just leave their community. I think it’s important to recontextualize it through a new lens.
Looking back is important. It's a part of looking within. Remembering those experiences, bringing them back—those things feel the realest a lot of times. I talk about that stuff because there's my fingerprint there somehow. Not everybody saw it how I saw it. Part of it is like putting all of yourself into the thing that you make. It's a conversation about honesty. I intend to incorporate a lot of that stuff into my art going forward. Like how memories come and go, bits and pieces and parts. Places that I remember being there and not there. Like the McDonalds on 78th Street. I can still squint my eyes if I stand on that corner and vaguely see the McDonald’s through my mind’s eye.
Why did you agree to do that series of album covers for Chance? Do you consider the style of portraiture on those covers to be a departure from the album artwork at the time?
People always want to ask me about the commercial work for Chance, and I don’t mind talking about it at all. Very few artists are able to bridge the gap between commercial work and fine arts, like Andy Warhol who really tapped into that mainstream appeal. My opinion is that not enough people are regularly exposed to fine art so I think in everyday spaces visual art isn't valued as much. In the beginning of us working together I thought Chance was doing something innovative with 10 Day, and I wanted to reflect the story he was telling on the mixtape in the album cover. To create the portrait, I put myself in the mindset of this kid who had been suspended from school for 10 days. Mixtape covers were so minimal at the time. Just a color block, the title and a parental advisory sticker. Graphic designers weren’t really using painting techniques in their work. It was rare to see technical artistic skill in album art especially in the Hip Hop/Rap genre. What we did with the Chance album covers really changed things within the genre and far beyond.
At the Black in Design Conference, while discussing your collaborations with Chance the Rapper, you talked about how the inherent value of your own neighborhood is sometimes lost. Now that you are more in tune with that value, how do you reflect it in your artwork?
I’m not sure. It just comes out. I dig deep and I try to make sure the work truly reflects this infusion that is me. I can’t do that without speaking about where I’m from at some level and that’s where the conversations about Chicago start coming up. Not so much what happened in Chicago, but how I’ve responded and how I perceive it, challenging my perspective, updating and expanding my perspective as I grow, and even changing my mind.
Through the FieldTripTM project, you expose local kids to arts and culture at institutions like the Museum of Contemporary Art. What is your strategy for exposing them to the inherent value of their own neighborhoods and communities at a young age?
I think that has to happen within them. I exist as an individual from similar circumstances so my goal is to communicate and reflect that. It’s like a jazz musician couldn’t teach the kids how to create Hip Hop. The best thing he could do is expose them to music, expose them to prose. I love to talk about this idea and point it out in places so they can see what I mean by the value in their community and making something from nothing. But they have to put their intellect and their god into the medium to make it what it is to be for the future.
That's why I tell my story. Because I just really didn't see the inherent, endless, crazy value that was coming directly from the culture I was a part of. I knew I was contributing to it. I couldn't even foresee the amount of success that has come. I was trying to send work to ad agencies until I looked at what I had already. What was in my backyard. And when I looked at that, really considered it, and tried to make something happen, I exceeded where I thought I wanted to be at an agency one day. That's one of the ways I try to point out that we need to search within. This external struggle for gratification and things that validate us and all this other shit is endless. At some point, the conversation has to happen internally.
If you see your environment differently, you see yourself differently. If you see yourself differently, you can see your environment differently. I directed a PBS digital series that was designed to show young parents ways to introduce their kids to STEM learning. I was trying to get people to rethink the way they saw math through things that they have access to on a daily basis, like music on the radio. There’s one episode where we went into a garden in Roseland on the South Side of Chicago and talked to people about the program they were doing. The program was designed for us to mimic stuff that nature was doing. It helps other people have this conversation about gardening and that diversity matters. You need these diverse kinds of plants within a garden to help everything grow. There's a plant called comfrey, which is a plant that helps remove toxins from the soil and gives nutrients to other plants in the garden. And the farmer posed [the question]: "What is your role within the community? Could you be the comfrey in your community to help people get the resources they need?”