Making Something from Nothing
Theaster Gates has used the transformative power of art to help revitalize Chicago’s South Side. | photo by Sara Pooley
When artist and innovator Theaster Gates took the stage at last Wednesday’s Gail Silver Memorial Lecture, the hundreds of people packed into the RISD Auditorium seemed to hold their collective breath. He’d kicked off the evening with a spellbinding video of his musical ensemble, the Black Monks of Mississippi, rehearsing a take on Amazing Grace that mixed Gospel with meditative chanting and featured an elderly, white-bearded tenor with a piercing gaze.
“We met Brother Billy at the Pancake House in Houston,” Gates told the crowd when the lights came up. “He sang it straight and I gave back in a different form. I was being conceptual while Billy was being spiritual.” The Monks stayed with the song, he went on to explain, until the music and their attention to the shared moment sculpted a new, divine space – creating something out of nothing.
And that’s precisely what Gates’ multifaceted work is all about. The large artists’ collective he runs in Chicago (it currently has 20 employees) is centered around his Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, a rehabilitated block of townhouses on the city’s largely blighted South Side. The block offers mixed-income residences for artists and community members, along with the Black Cinema House, Gates’ nonprofit Rebuild Foundation and the newly completed Stony Island Arts Bank – a massive edifice he acquired for $1 and turned into “a repository for African American culture and history, a laboratory for the next generation of black artists and a space for neighborhood residents to preserve, access, reimagine and share their heritage.”
In his talk at RISD – sponsored by the RISD Museum and the Alliance of Artists Communities – Gates spoke about growing up poor. Living far outside of the white world of museums and contemporary art, he took to heart his mother’s strong faith and struggle to keep up with bills and worked to help his father with his roofing business and the family-owned barbecue pit. “While Mom knew God,” he remarked, “Dad knew tires, pipe wrenches, engines, refrigerator motors and gaskets.”
Gates delivered his talk almost like a sermon, rhythmically repeating words and phrases and circling back to themes of community, race and spirituality. “Is there room for my father and brothers and cousins at the museum,” he wondered aloud, “or just this one black exception?” He showed only a handful of his own pieces – notably his 2014 Tar Paintings installation at London’s White Cube gallery, which he created with the help of his father and the well-worn tar kettle he’d inherited and ultimately included as part of the piece.
His focus, Gates explained, is not on finished work, gallery shows and accolades, but on engaging with people and living in the now. “Reconstituting materials ain’t the art,” he said, slipping out of his pastor’s mien and into a snappier conversational tone. “It’s our ability to see things other folks aren’t looking at. The work comes way before the end product. It’s your heart and your willingness to grapple – to be present.”
Gates also eschews the Modernist notion that what matters most in art is the work and not where it came from. “That construct was created by the white capitalist machine,” he noted in a more casual conversation with graduate students the morning after his lecture. “I don’t have to subscribe to that cold, unemotional way of thinking.”
But whether speaking to grad students or a larger audience, Gates was anything but unemotional. He visibly warmed to the RISD community as the Wednesday evening lecture progressed, pantomiming the act of painting with a heavy tar mop and vamping with the sign language interpreter beside him onstage.
In response to a student question about how education plays into a career in the arts, Gates noted that although a master’s degree may open certain doors, “when my ideas and agency started to grow, the art world wasn’t interested. I had to build my own space to do what I wanted to do. A university degree can’t teach you how to dream, believe, make a way out of no way. It can’t make you a hustler if you’re not a hustler.”
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