Artsy aldermen exhibit blends creativity and politics


Alex Parker

March 12, 2010 @ 7:45 AM

Artist Katy Keefe's portrait of 15th Ward Alderman Toni Foulkes is part of a collaborative exhibition./Credit: Alex Parker
Since artist Layne Jackson learned she had the opportunity to paint a portrait of her alderman, she's pondered how to best portray her ward's representative. Participating in the Chicago Aldermen Project, a collaborative effort by local artists to portray civic leaders, she is charged with painting the 1st Ward alderman.

But Jackson, active in 1st Ward politics, has a wild card: Her ward has no alderman. Manny Flores vacated his seat in January to become chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission.

So Jackson will take some creative liberties in depicting what a 1st Ward alderman could be.

“I may instead sort of address my painting in a series of pictures of who it might be. It could be everyman. Who would we choose to represent us?” she says. “At this point I’m real fascinated by the idea that if in fact it is supposed to be representation of my community, who would that be?”

Officially called 50 Alderman/50 Artists: The Chicago Aldermen Project, the exhibition is the brainchild of artists Jeremy Scheuch and Lauri Apple, who came up with the idea while discussing politics over coffee.

“We weren’t sure that people knew about their alderfolks, and we weren’t that versed in local politics either and it seemed like a good idea,” Apple says. “There’s been a lot of attention with the Blagojevich scandal and other scandals in the city.”

Their efforts will be showcased starting March 19 through April 2 at the Johalla Project, 1561 N. Milwaukee. All 50 alderman – or in the cases of indicted 29th Ward Alderman Isaac “Ike” Carothers and Flores, their wards – will be portrayed, as well as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.

Apple, who has participated in politically-charged artistic events in Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., says the project can help create a dialogue between politicians and Chicago’s art community.

“I think the show will reveal the diversity of the city. Hopefully the artists will meet with their alderpeople and have some sort of personal connection that will get them to see politics differently,” she says.

Forty-ninth Ward Alderman Joe Moore says he participated to support the active arts community in Rogers Park, which he represents.

“We have a very burgeoning arts community. It’s my way of showing my support for the arts in Chicago,” says Moore, who will be portrayed in a mini-documentary.

“Hopefully it will increase my colleagues’ appreciation for the arts, and hopefully it will increase the patrons of this art exhibit’s understanding and appreciation of the City Council,” he says.

Katy Keefe, a painter specializing in abstract art, met with her subject, 15th Ward Alderman Toni Foulkes, in late February. Keefe says they spoke for two hours, and Foulkes told of her humble beginnings as a baker at Jewel. That led to owning her own bakery, and then to participating in local politics.

“She’s got a really interesting grassroots, food-related background that I found really interesting,” Keefe says, adding that Foulkes supports the efforts of unions.

Keefe is painting Foulkes in watercolor, wrapping the alderman in magnolia flowers, the state flower of Foulkes’ native Mississippi.

“I think, hopefully, as a result, people will be able to realize things about her personal and political character by looking at the portrait,” she says.

Other artists hope their work will spur the public to learn more about their alderman, who despite their campaigning and ward offices, can be obscure public figures.

“It is amazing how little Chicagoans know about their alderman and I think this exhibition will do a great job in bridging the gaps between politics and culture,” says Aaron Wooten, who painted 45th Ward Alderman Patrick Levar. “When Chicagoans see the aldermen hanging on the wall, the first reaction will be to find their alderman and see what they look like.”

Photographer Jennifer Greenburg, whose subject is 14th Ward Alderman Edward Burke, agrees.

“If you know who one politician is, you should know who your alderman is,” she says.

But Scheuch says that can be difficult.

“Just trying to contact an alderman is just a pain in the ass. Their Web site is a mess. It’s very hard to get in touch with them. A lot of them don’t even have an e-mail address. It’s just ludicrous,” he says.

Still, the project is not about airing grievances, though some artists are almost sure to take jabs at Chicago’s infamous political machine.

The message to artists, Scheuch says, is to take an objective view of their subjects.

“There are already preconceived notions. Here’s your chance to sit down for a couple of minutes and talk,” he says.

If anything comes out of the exhibition – which will include a voter registration booth run by the League of Women Voters – the organizers hope to blend art and politics to celebrate Chicago’s dynamic history.

Political art can “throw people off-guard and cause them to think about issues in a different way,” Apple says. “Here we can really make it cool because it will be all these different people depicting the aldermen.”


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