Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Thereby the grace of God, go I


Readers of this blog (and the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune) have been aware of a kind of class warfare taking place in Uptown. It’s no secret. Articles have been appearing in the media for about three weeks. As someone who has written for and about the homeless and under-housed (See Orphan Girl) I am very sensitive to this issue. The issue of zombie-fying the homeless. And, to be fair, not all those targeted are actually homeless—maybe they’re characters, troubled, alcoholics—they are, for whatever reason, poor people. They are the OTHER. They remind us that we have a comfort zone and we better retreat back into it.

I understand. But I also believe that these individuals are human and have rights.

Lately I’ve been reading about Vivian Meir and Henry Darger. Both artists, both truly “different.”

Vivan Meir was a nanny on the North Shore who often after the kids boarded the bus to go to school took off with her camera, making forays into downtown Chicago or out on her bike. Perhaps she had some kind of personality disorder, she wasn’t very sociable—yet she was interested in people, enough to take thousand and thousands of pictures of strangers on the streets she walked. She had a storage unit FILLED with negatives, rolls of unprocessed film, and trunks full of pictures. They were about to be disposed of when the unit was emptied and the contents auctioned off. The buyers thankfully realized what they had was unique and a complete collection. In addition Vivian had a rare talent. I’m never very sure of the definition of outsider art. Definitely she had skill, but no formal training. She also had an in-born gift for composition, lighting, and capturing a moment or a person in her photographs.

Henry Darger is more complex. Even his artwork—is it collage? Certainly not all of it was original—and yet he was one of the most original artists I’ve ever encountered. I remember seeing wall-size panels of his discovered work at the Terra Museum in the 1990s. For those not familiar with Darger’s work CLICK here. The psychology or speculation for why he did what he did—there have been several theories, but nothing to really explain what was behind the tomes he wrote. All together he produced over 15,000 pages of writing accompanied by his own illustrations and stand-alone artwork.

Both Meir and Darger would have been run out of Uptown today. Even though the community prides itself on being diverse—there is today a real push to see anyone perceived as “different” out of the neighborhood.

I’ve talked about this with Fred Burkhart, my artist friend. We both sort’ve laughed about so-called artists. The people who look the part—as if the hard work of producing art is merely a fashion show, as easy as making a statement. We both agree that the proof is in the work. Not to be confused with material wealth or monetary reciprocation for such work. We all know some of the most revered artists of today were in their time usually overlooked and their work undervalued. Van Gogh was never more important than once dead.

Meir and Darger had anti-social habits. Darger picked through trash, talked to himself, and rarely bathed. Meir soon found herself going from job to job because of difficulties getting along with her employers. Both were packrats. The MAIN issue though is that they were both living on the margins economically. They would have found themselves priced out of Uptown if alive today. AND unwanted. Their kind is even now being pushed out. Further north to Rogers Park. Into shelters. Into nursing homes or halfway houses. There doesn’t seem to be room anymore for characters in Uptown.

Maybe someday, in the future, when Uptown is homogenized, cleansed, gentrified, residents will look around and say to themselves—we moved here because this neighborhood used to be a hotbed of creativity. What has happened to all the characters?
photo: Vivan Meir
photo: Vivan Meir
photo: Fred Burkhart
photo: Fred Burkhart
illustration: Henry Darger

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