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Theaster Gates: The Rise of an Unconventional Art Star

Theaster Gates believes that good art can rescue bad neighborhoods. Here’s how he has convinced the international art world to buy into his vision.

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An installation (part of his Documenta 13 exhibition ‘12 Ballads for Huguenot House’)

Photo: Courtesy of Kavi Gupta Chicago

An installation (part of his Documenta 13 exhibition 12 Ballads for Huguenot House)

Gates knows all about troubled areas. In the 1970s, unemployment in his family’s mostly black neighborhood, East Garfield Park, ran as high as 35 percent. His father, also named Theaster, had a job as a roofer, but his income didn’t go far: He and his wife, Lorine, had nine children to feed. (Gates is the youngest and the only boy.) “There were not artists in our family,” says Gates’s nephew Titus Wonsey, 23. “No one thought about that seriously as a career path.”

But Gates says that accompanying his father on roofing jobs constituted a kind of artistic awakening. “My first experience with the creative was mopping tar,” he says, describing a skill that requires dance-like movements. “If you let the tar sit, it can get cold pretty quickly. And because the mops are so heavy, you’ve got to dip it and then ride it really fast,” Gates explains as he moves an imaginary mop across the floor. He starts clapping and pounding his feet, lost in the memory.

If rooftops are where Gates learned to use his hands, church is where he became a performer. His family attended New Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church every Sunday. At age 13, the youngster became the church’s youth choir director. “It was the late 1980s, when community choirs were very popular in Chicago,” he recalls. “We looked up to the Thompson Community Singers [a Grammy-winning South Side gospel choir]; they were musical and style heroes. Instead of Vogue magazine, you had the church musical. It was like, Oh, I want a fade like that.”

In the fifth grade, he and a few other promising kids from his neighborhood school were invited to attend Reilly Elementary on the Northwest Side. Gates subsequently landed at Lane Tech, a prestigious public high school at Addison Street and Western Avenue. He took the bus there from East Garfield Park. “Every day you get past North and Armitage, and you start to look different,” he says. “I have walked two worlds since fifth grade. I had a better understanding of both because I was moving between them.”

Theaster Gates

After graduating from Lane Tech—where his social circle included drama geeks and members of the French club—he headed to Iowa State University to study urban planning. In his junior year, he took a pottery class. “It went pretty well,” says Gates, “and I took another one.”

His interest in pottery, and in the arts in general, quickly grew. Toying with the idea of pursuing sculpture full-time, he succumbed to 20-something wanderlust for the next few years, at one point studying traditional African religions at the University of Cape Town. In 1999, he won a ceramics residency in Tokoname, Japan, where he worked with a group of master potters for four months. It was a seminal experience. “[Potters] were craftsmen in the United States, but in Japan, they were artists,” he says.

Gates returned to the States and soon landed a job as the Chicago Transit Authority’s arts planner, charged with arranging murals and art along the train lines. Craving more influence, he quit five years later and returned to Iowa State to pursue a multidisciplinary master’s degree in urban planning, religion, and sculpture. “When he resigned from his CTA position, which was a good job with benefits, a lot of the family was like, ‘Whoa, what is he doing?’ ” says Wonsey.

After his 2006 graduation, Gates was hired as an artist in residence and guest lecturer at the University of Chicago. (He’s now in charge of the university’s Arts and Public Life program.) In his spare time, he continued to make pottery and participate in group shows. The varied experiences of his 20s fed his art, Gates says: “Things accumulate, and then they expedite your life in ways you don’t imagine.”

In 2007, he landed a small solo exhibition, Plate Convergences, at the Hyde Park Art Center. The show revolved around the fictional story of a Japanese potter who moved to Mississippi—a twist on his own family history (the Gateses had moved to Chicago from Mississippi). It was part exhibit, part happening: Gates made a series of Japanese-style ceramics on which he served what he called Japanese soul food (black-eyed pea sushi, a mash of sweet potatoes and sticky rice) in a carefully curated dinner party.

It’s a format he would end up relying on time and again as a way to draw other artists, philanthropists, grant makers, critics, black culturati, and assorted beautiful people into his universe.
“Theaster is not your usual experience,” says Michelle Boone, Chicago’s commissioner of cultural affairs, who has known the artist since the late 1990s. “He is all about using his work to express what is happening in the culture right now.”

Gates used these evenings to cultivate a personality as a charmer, a flirt, and a master of the social spectacle. In a way, he was becoming his own best work of art: a young James Brown in a linen blazer and cowboy hat—if Brown had immersed himself in Homer, Foucault, and Jane Jacobs. He could be the captivating Soul Train conductor, the inscrutable artiste, or the bloviating armchair academic, depending on who was in his audience.

While the show generated a bit of buzz, it took almost two years for Gates to get something bigger: an emerging-artist showcase at the MCA. This time he delivered a racially charged experience that zeroed in on black American identity in a way that Plate Convergences had not. In one performance, he stood in the middle of a large room, warming his hands. “Boss!” he shouted in a pointedly servile tone, assuming the role of an overly solicitous midcentury bootblack. “I’m gonna shine some shoes!”

For that show, called Temple Exercises, Gates built a large “temple space” out of discarded wooden shelves that had been used as conveyor pallets for Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. (He got them on a tip from the South Side master recycler Ken Dunn.) He and a band he assembled, the Black Monks of Mississippi, performed there and in two other spaces: Little Black Pearl, Kenwood’s art education center, and Shine King, a legendary storefront on Chicago’s West Side.

It was a pivotal moment. Together, the spaces embodied the three public sides of Gates: the emerging contemporary art star, the neighborhood activist, and the boy from the hardscrabble West Side neighborhood. And the exhibition’s healthy attendance reinforced his instinct that great art doesn’t have to happen within a museum’s walls.

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