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Art People: making the unseen unavoidable

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On Chicago Avenue in Austin, among the vacant storefronts and businesses like Deno's Hair Kingdom, S.B.M. Beef Inc., and Yoo's Supermarket, hang a series of vivid acrylic four-by-six signs. An orange-and-white one reads "Black mothers proud to be" in large letters. The smaller text below says, "I'm showing them what a real role model is. If you can believe it, achieve it. Do what you got to do." The opposite side carries another message: "They think that I am more than what I am." Below: "It is a lot of responsibility and you can't do what you want to do. Can't go where you want to go."

The signs are part of "Family Voices/Austin," a public design project of the Lincoln Square-based nonprofit group Community Architexts. "We're trying to counter the stereotype of inner-city mothers," explains School of the Art Institute associate professor B.J. Krivanek, who founded Architexts a couple of years after moving here from Los Angeles in the mid-90s. "When you think about the urban landscape, all you're surrounded by is commercial messages telling you to buy things," he says. "There are no other messages out there."

The statements on the signs come from 50 women and children Krivanek and his staff interviewed through a handful of social-service agencies in Austin and Oak Park. Out of these they recruited a core group of about 15, who listened to the tapes and helped make the final decisions on which quotes to use. The initial idea came from an Architexts intern who was interested in examining postpartum depression in, says Krivanek, "a population that's affected and yet almost defenseless against it." Over the two years the project took to complete, its subject matter expanded to being poor and female.

The large texts--proclaiming such things as "Children with love have everything," "What society thinks means nothing to me," and "I am living in a nice community"--are meant to be read by people who drive through the community but don't live there (e.g., Oak Parkers who use Chicago Avenue as an artery, says Krivanek). The smaller texts below are aimed at pedestrians.

Many of the women who participated in the project came to a "site activation" in June, during which a side street was closed off and their statements were projected onto a wall. "The whole point is to talk to a community that's been rendered invisible in the culture and make what they have to say very public and visible," says Krivanek. When the signs come down later this month, the hardware--which Community Architexts either rehabbed or built from scratch--will be given to local shop owners.

Krivanek, who grew up on a dairy farm in Iowa and earned his MFA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also runs a for-profit design company. "As someone who grew up on a farm as a gay man, I feel very connected to the underdog. Whoever's an outsider--I can relate to that."

In 1998 Architexts did a large-scale outdoor slide project on Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village to commemorate the Ukrainian famine of 1932-'33. The group's projects usually include movement-based performance as well as text; last month it collaborated with Iowa artist Jane Gilmor on "Work-Shift," a series of multimedia performances held at a former slaughterhouse near Cedar Rapids where some of Krivanek's relatives once worked. That project, which consisted of ten scenes and combined movement, text, video, and sound, also focused on women. "People tend not to think of women working in slaughterhouses," he explains. "And when it comes to labor history, women are virtually invisible."

These days Krivanek's looking into doing a project at the Brach's candy factory in Austin, which is slated to close next year. But apart from some NEA grants, raising money has been an uphill battle. "Funders don't always understand what we're doing. We're not a dance company because we don't do a dance season. But I wouldn't call it guerrilla work because it's funded and we work through the community. It's hard to pin down exactly what it is."

"Family Voices/Austin" will be up through August 15 on Chicago Avenue between Pine (5500 West) and Parkside (5632 West). For more information call 773-506-7814.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.

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