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Billboards for a Better World

Peace Signs let young artists live large.



A billboard that just went up near the corner of Western and Ohio shows a photographic image of a hand, thumb and index finger extended, pointing at a pair of hands held up defensively. "Can You Argue With a Gun?" the sign says in black letters. "Don't Think So!"

The billboard isn't a public service announcement paid for by a gun-control group. It's a public art piece created by Chicago artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle and 14-year-old Calixto Jaime. "It's cool how we got to make these things and send a message out into the community where people are gonna see them," says Jaime, a student at Noble Street Charter High School. He's also a member of ROTC and plans to enlist in the marines, but he doesn't see creating a billboard that's against guns as a conflict. "In the military you have them for a reason," he says. "But keeping guns at home is stupid, because kids have access to them and they don't have training with weapons. When kids have guns they'll shoot."

The billboard is one of six around the city that are part of Peace Signs, a project developed by Janeil Engelstad. It paired six professional artists--including Engelstad, painter Kerry James Marshall, sculptor Phil Schuster, and ceramists Marva Jolly and Rozlyn Adams--with six teens to design images based on the theme of youth violence. The professionals donated time to work with the youths, who were enrolled in art education programs at the Lill Street Learning Center and Street-Level Youth Media.

Engelstad, who divides her time between Dallas and Chicago, has been in town since January coordinating Peace Signs, which is part of a larger antigun art project, Visualizing Violence, that she started in San Francisco three years ago with follow-ups in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. All of the projects have matched artists and designers with mostly at-risk youths, and all of them have explored violence in the nation's schools and on its streets. The projects have also been accompanied by workshops, forums, and vigils intended to spark dialogue within communities and teach kids about nonviolent conflict resolution.

Most important, says Englestad, "Students who usually have little or no voice in the reporting and analysis of this subject are given the opportunity to speak to their peers and to the general public through the creation of public artwork. With a project like this--hopefully, on a small scale--they get to tell their own story. The artist acts as a collaborator and as a mentor and helps them hone their ideas."

A Seattle native, Engelstad received a bachelor's degree in political science and English from the University of Washington in 1985, then an MFA in photography from New York University. As a graduate student, she ran photography programs for kids, one of which matched ten youths with ten artists, including Chuck Close, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Andres Serrano, and William Wegman. The large Polaroids the kids created were shown in a traveling exhibit that went to photography centers in New York, Boston, and Cleveland.

Moving to Chicago in 1995, Engelstad worked with students from Urban Gateways, an arts education group, to produce a drama that was shown live on video monitors to audiences here and in LA. A year later she got a city grant to photograph midwestern landscapes, which were silk-screened on clay tablets. That project introduced her to Lill Street and its learning center. "Chicago's always been good to me," she says. "If you compare it to other cities, there's incredible [art education] opportunities here. LA doesn't have that--or New York--in the same degree. There's a real community here--more like a brotherhood or sisterhood, a support network among fellow artists."

But Engelstad moved on to the west coast anyway, to teach at youth centers and in UCLA summer programs. She launched Visualizing Violence because "I just got sick of kids shooting each other." The first project brought together four teens and four artists who created oversize photos that were published in a catalog and exhibited at the Ansel Adams Center for Photography in San Francisco and the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York. The young artists spoke in their schools and to the California state assembly about their work and the effects of gun violence on their lives. The following year the project moved to LA, where six teams created billboard images. They drew a lot of media attention, and three of the billboards were reworked as transit-shelter posters and put up around Washington, D.C. Engelstad then took the project to New York, where six teams designed another set of transit-shelter posters. "In doing work like this," she says, "I think it's important to work in galleries and include them in community art projects. But I also think it's important to go into areas and appropriate spaces where you traditionally might not find art."

Like the earlier projects, Peace Signs required the teen participants to attend a series of workshops where they discussed issues related to gun violence, such as prevention, the role of the media, and the effect of government policies. Engelstad says, "We talked about, is it parenting? Is it poor schools? Is it the availability of guns? Why all of a sudden is there this problem? Or is there really not such a big problem and is it just the media all of a sudden focusing on it? We talked about their personal stories and what happened in their lives."

The teens also studied the fundamentals of graphic design, then were carefully matched with artists. Engelstad says it's never been difficult to persuade artists to get involved in her projects. "I say, 'It's a way for you to give back--you don't have to write a check. It's a way for you to take a couple hours a week for a couple months out of your life and work one-on-one with somebody and contribute.' Most everyone says, 'Yeah, that sounds great.' Almost every artist learns something, and a lot of them continue the relationship afterward."

The artists and the kids met several times over eight weeks as they designed their pieces. Ashley Washington, a 14-year-old student at Crane Tech high school who lives in North Lawndale, spent most of her eight weeks in Marva Jolly's ceramics studio at Chicago State University. Their billboard, located at Brainard and Houston in the southeast corner of the city, asks "What's in Your Child's Toybox?" and shows a kid removing a gun from a box of toys. Washington says, "I really wanted to point out to parents to lock their guns up--or not to have them at all."

Funding for Peace Signs came from contributions from arts organizations and foundations and with state and city grants. Eller Media provided the free billboard space and offered printing at a discount. "They've been a really good corporate citizen as far as getting behind the project," says Engelstad, who also worked with the Phoenix-based firm in LA, New York, and Washington, D.C. The company's Web site says it donates more than $20 million worth of public-service advertising space each year to nonprofits throughout the country.

But Engelstad found Chicago businesses reluctant to put up cash. "In my experience, corporations see the issue as too polarizing," she says. "Even though they may believe that gun violence is a problem, they do not want to take the chance of offending any of their consumer base who may be gun owners."

Engelstad isn't sure what effect the Peace Signs billboards will have on the neighborhoods where they're displayed. "It's hard to measure anything," she says, though she hopes the project has changed at least the lives of the six young people who participated.

Lill Street artist Rozlyn Adams and Naomi Medina, the 17-year-old Clemente High School student with whom she was paired, both had close friends killed by guns. Their billboard, at 80th and Western, looks like a movie poster, with painted images of a gun and chalked body outlines splotched with blood. It says, "Coming a Neighborhood Near You?"

"I'd never drawn a gun before in my life," says Adams. "But when I heard about this project, I really wanted to work on it. Maybe it'll make a difference. Maybe somebody can look at it and think twice about it."

Other Peace Signs billboards, which will be up through July, are at Devon and Leavitt, 90th and Ashland, and Pershing and Hermitage. At sunset on July 12, a candlelight vigil will be held at the Western and Ohio site.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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