Ten children are gathered in an abandoned school at 45th and Damen in the Back of the Yards. It’s 1995, and it’s one of the hottest, most violent summers Chicago has seen. Most of the children in the room come from neighboring elementary schools, while others are already labeled as dropouts. One child expresses his greatest fear: being accidently shot on his way to school. Together, they decide to build a fully armor-plated suit that can withstand gunfire, and so the Stockyard Institute is born.
“When we started talking about the suit, it got really quiet in the room,” says Jim Duignan, who sits at the end of a long table in a room thick with heat and the smell of sawdust. “I realized that there was a bit of anxiety, because everybody was implicated. Everyone was connected to gang life… It was an intense area in 1995. Police named it the most violent community in Illinois for youth.”
The Stockyard Institute turns twenty this year, and with a history of meeting anywhere from abandoned schools to basements and trailers, Duignan is excited to use the Rebuilding Exchange to connect his networks. Duignan is also their first Artist in Residence, and he will help the RE structure a program for future residents. He’ll work out of their Bucktown warehouse for one year, creating sculptures and building programming using the reclaimed materials at hand.
He has much to work with. Around us are large rooms brimming with old world lumber, doors, lighting, cabinets—forgotten treasures that the Rebuilding Exchange has diverted from landfills for repurposing and sale.
“When I find a space like this, I know how to use it. We’re building a curriculum that’s youth-directed,” he explains. “Experimental, where young people can participate in the construction of their own knowledge. We build things that we can use. The model comes more from Jane Addams and the Hull House rather than a school or museum.”
From starting radio stations to staging historical reenactments, Duignan loops in his network of fellow artists and teachers to help direct projects and kickstart opportunities that engage youth in new ways.
“Everything is challenge,” he says, grinning. “You fall for the kids, right? And you think my God, you can’t adopt them. But you want things to be better for them.” When he tells me he wishes he had such opportunities as a child, I ask him about his first memory of making art. “With my brother Mike. We would build these carts with scrap materials and stroller wheels. When we would build these things, we got really close. It was like listening around a campfire… You pull the building of a relationship together.”
It’s a beautiful memory, I say. He falls silent, and a fan ticks away the stillness like a clock on the wall. “Yes… He died a few years ago. My little brother. I always thought Mike was an artist who didn’t have a medium, and I see that in some of these kids too. They have a practice but they can’t find it.” He pauses again before continuing. “It’s for the kids who want something better for themselves. I want something better for them, too. And it’s not a Herculean feat,” he adds. “to make their lives a little bit better.” (Maria Girgenti)
Jim Duignan is the current Artist in Residence at Rebuilding Exchange, 1740 West Webster.