All Theaster Gates Jr. wanted was to be a good city bureaucrat. He worked as an arts planner for the Chicago Transit Authority in the early 2000s, helping artists navigate the lengthy process of getting their work on the walls of el stations. It was all great, in theory. But Gates got impatient. He started to feel limited by the hoops, the paperwork, the various parameters, and the chains of approval. So he turned to his own sculpture and site-specific design (then, still a hobby).

“I always had these side projects in the community,” says Gates, 36, who serves as director of arts programming, lecturer, and artist-in-residence at the University of Chicago. “And more and more I realized that if I found a way to use this vehicle of art that maybe I could change policy—or at least critique policy in a way that could have more impact than just working in the planning department.”

In the past few years, the Iowa State University grad has made traditional African pottery and abstract porcelain collages; he has built towering shoeshine stands in homage to a bustling shine center on Chicago’s West Side; he has constructed meditative gathering spaces using wood salvaged from defunct inner-city factories. Now, hot off a showing at the Whitney Biennial and a solo outing at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Chicago native has set his sights on his own South Side block: In one of his odder-sounding projects, he is collaborating with friends and neighbors to turn a dilapidated building into a Japanese soul food joint, as part of a food-themed exhibition at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art in 2012.

“Having an engagement on my block is a very hands-on, sophisticated way of saying that change is not about wealth or political prowess,” says Gates, who will host a series of conversations about neighborhood projects and show his porcelain collages at the Art Chicago satellite fair NEXT (at the Merchandise Mart, April 30th through May 3rd).

“It ain’t rocket science,” he adds. “It’s one day at a time; it’s about knowing your neighbors and using whatever cultural capital you have to make the things around you better.”


Video & Photograph: Chris Strong