When John Preus MFA'05, multidisciplinary artist, designer, and furniture maker, talks about his current project for the Keller Center, he reveals a deep and thoughtful relationship with hundreds of desks, chairs, tables, and bookshelves that became raw material for his art after he retrieved them from Chicago Public Schools that were closed in 2013.
Preus – whose name rhymes with “choice” – has fashioned wood objects and sculpture out of hundreds of pieces of furniture he reclaimed from some of the 49 elementary schools that were closed, a controversial move halfway through the tenure of Mayor Rahm Emanuel that drew the ire of the Chicago Teachers Union, to say nothing of many community parents. A phone call in 2014 conveyed the urgency of removing the pieces, with their patina of use by generations of CPS students, primarily students of color on Chicago’s South and West Sides, who left their mark with initials, images, and other expressions of imagination and aspirations, boredom and frustration, carved into the wood.
Since acquiring them, Preus has wrestled with the meaning of their origins, history, and questions that emerge from their presence as artifacts, as a memorial. How do everyday objects hold memory? How do we embrace objects around us? Do we embrace them, and, in this case, the attention they demand and lessons they offer about the largest mass closing of public schools in US history? Or do we willingly lose the objects and memories and knowledge they hold by dumping them in a landfill?
For Preus, and for Harris Public Policy, the imperative to save the materials, and reclaim them as a means of examining the consequences of the CPS school closings, and the larger implications for education policy, is clear. The objects crafted from the furnishings provoke questions and keep alive conversations about what school closings have meant to communities for which they served as physical landmarks and anchors of civic and social life. Is this, Preus asks, an historical moment? Is this the initial phase of a departure from the traditional role of public schools?
In January, Harris inaugurates 2020 and the start of a new decade with art installations Preus has created for the Keller Center, including a platform or stage constructed of desktops, 15” x 15” hand-crafted cubes that will be placed in and around the Harris Family Foundation King Harris Forum, and a replica of the lectern from which Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863.
The stage, installed in the public gathering area near the north entrance of the Keller Center, will be the site of the January 30 opening event, organized by Harris After Hours and the Smart Museum of Art, where Preus served as the 2019 Interpreter in Residence. Misho Ceko, chief operating officer and senior associate dean at Harris; Michael Christiano, deputy director and curator of public practice at the Smart Museum of Art; and Michelle Hoereth, director of diversity and inclusion at Harris, look forward to presenting public programs that activate the objects and spaces they occupy with public performances and community conversations. Programming will engage Harris students and youth and adult residents of surrounding South Side communities in dialogue about the work, starting points for discussion about critical policy issues, including education and urban policy, and ways they intersect with other issues, such as health and housing.
A panel discussion will be held on January 27, on the stage, with Elena Gonzales, PhD, author of the newly published Exhibitions for Social Justice. Gonzales is an independent scholar focused on curatorial work with museums that foster a “hospitable, equitable, and sustainable” society. Other programs will coincide with Black History Month and beyond and will continue through the summer of 2020, when Christiano and Hoereth plan to re-engage junior high and high school students who participated in the Smart Museum’s Summer Teen Program, in partnership with the Chicago Housing Authority. Students will have the opportunity to continue an art / design / build project, using the reclaimed CPS materials to re-animate the vacant Washington Park Chalet building, slated as space for teen-directed cultural programming. Teens will, as Christiano says, “metaphorically and expressly create new opportunities from the material.”
Of the Smart Museum’s collaboration with Harris, Christiano notes, “The Interpreter in Residence program is an opportunity to extend the work of the Smart Museum beyond the boundaries of its walls; to host small, intimate roundtables and public discussions, as well as large-scale programs that respond more immediately to ideas and concerns that arise from the art. The Preus project will generate omni-directional discussion about important questions with Harris students, K-12 students, and artists. What do we mean, for example, when we talk about public education?”
A planned performance by composer and multi-instrumentalist Douglas R. Ewart will build on Ewart’s work for the Infinite Games 50/50 exhibition Preus organized in 2017, when he invited 50 artists and designers to create a piece from the CPS furniture. Ewart, who also makes instruments, will perform on instruments he constructed from CPS materials.
Preus hopes that another current project with an art class at Sullivan High School, creating masks and garments, will be ready in time to complement Ewart’s performance. That project is through the CPS Lives arts organization, which pairs Chicago artists, educators, thinkers and other creatives with a Chicago Public School. Preus is excited and hopeful about having the stage, cubes, and other pieces he created for the Keller Center serve as actual and symbolic touchstones for addressing ‘troubling’ questions of our time—and as opportunities to engage directly and creatively with the challenges.
For Preus, the work has evolved into experiencing how these everyday objects “impose themselves on us.” “Policy is a kind of social architecture,” notes Preus. “It creates structures that mediate relationships and that affect what sorts of relationships are possible between people. Likewise, objects act as a social medium, as a repository of memory, even as an agent that can transmit human experience across time and space.”
The questions the objects raise and the importance they hold are acknowledged and addressed if people actively engage in responding to their environments. A landscape, Preus notes, “contains untold beauty and horror; when things are unveiled, it can radically change how we experience and view the world.”
The Harris project opens on January 30 and offers a promising portal into a collective effort to unveil, explore, and learn from the ‘troubled’ landscape of a pivotal chapter in Chicago history.