“Turn soft and lovely any time you have a chance.”

Social messages in public art take the mainstage at Fairfield

Fairfield Academy in Marquette Park has hosted Urban Gateways artist-in-residence programs for four full years now, and visual artist James Jankowiak been working there throughout. James’ residencies are not only visual-arts based, but they touch on a number of bigger issues, notably self-image, advertising in modern culture (“You Are Soul Sweet”), and in this case, anti-violence. Marquette Park has experienced high crime rates for years, and students there express consistent concerns about safety.

“The children who have to navigate and inhabit the neighborhoods where violence is common have constantly been shortchanged an opportunity to speak for themselves,” James said. “I’ve devoted a large portion of my professional artistic life in these communities, with the belief that local participation in the arts gives under served public school children a chance to be seen and heard in a positive way, to think critically, and to mold a positive blueprint for meaningful social change on their own block.”

His 16-week, 32-visit residency at Fairfield was titled “The Word: Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Art in the 1980s.” James taught one class each of fifth, sixth and eighth grade, studying how the “high” and “low” art worlds connected to make public and socially conscious statements during an important decade. Since some of the same students participated in James’ previous Fairfield residency about advertising in modern culture, “The Word” served as a continued discussion about the powers of messaging. They talked about graffiti, public art, and “Truisms” by Jenny Holzer:

Turn soft and lovely any time you have a chance

Savor kindness, because cruelty can always come later

These were two of Holzer’s “Marquee Signs” that James shared with his classes. When he presented the latter, there was silence. “Until one of my kids raised his hand and said, ‘Makes you think.’ And that’s what it’s all about.”

In response to these pieces, the students wrote their own social messages and created T-shirts to show them off. They’re donning their final products in this photo set:

And below, take a look at the full list of messages they came up with.


Big kudos to James for leading this inspiring residency. Read about this Urban Gateways arts education program, plus James’ thoughts on socially conscious art, violence and institutional racism in Chicago neighborhoods, on his blog.