Jim Duignan, A Plea for Playgrounds, 2014

by Sammi Skolmoski (MFA 2016)

An artist brings high school students into the gallery to inspire them to engage their communities

Jim Duignan—artist, educator, and Chicago native—has a heightened awareness of his surroundings that is very present in his work. On his information page for the Stockyard Institute, his Back of the Yards–based neighborhood outreach project created in 1995, Duignan explains, “My youth was preoccupied with locating a place for myself, traversing Chicago and looking for peace, answers and equanimity that today has provided a deeper analysis and sharper perspective on the kind of city I wish to live in.”

Duignan speaks often of the need for the artist to get out, wander, and interact—almost as if art is created through osmosis, through the literal movement of the artist through his community. Duignan has come together with his longtime collaborator and founder of the University of Hip Hop Lavie Raven and SAIC’s Department of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies and SAIC faculty John Ploof to develop Zumbi Day—a series of workshops for students from the West Side communities of North Lawndale and Pilsen to come in and experience the A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action exhibition, and to interact with examples of artwork that are either a call or response to the community in which it was made.

“We are using the Sullivan Galleries as a studio,” Duignan says, “to introduce all our students to the social and civic-minded work that shapes our workshop’s curriculum, and imagines the work from a suite of artists in the gallery as fine examples of well-executed inquiries about looking at the world around us.”

Duignan’s piece in the show, A Plea for Playgrounds, is a 12-foot seesaw that symbolically embodies cooperation and reflects the stories a group of elders shared with him about their youth in Chicago. The seesaw has an accompanying booklet, the reissued 1905 A Plea for Playgrounds, that was a combined effort with architectural historian Jennifer L. Gray and exposes, as Duignan says, that not much has changed about “playground politics” in the last century.


“It was the center of the neighborhood for children and adults,” Duignan explains. “It appeared as I grew older that the playground still helps to manage all sorts of needs, most of which are positive, healthy, and safe.” Duignan wanted to share this exhibition with the students from North Lawndale and Pilsen, with whom he’s had a long relationship, instigated by Raven.

“Our students need to know how to build their learning by getting at the core of things,” Duignan says. “Lavie and I are very interested in bringing young people to where stuff happens and make the time to break that down for them. It is imperative that the youth share equally in the tiered developments of the collective work, whatever that might look like. It’s teaching.”

Duignan doesn’t expect all of the layers of artistic social engagement to sink in after one trip to the gallery, though. “One never knows whether they will respond to the work, one only hopes,” he says. “They look, and build answers based on questions that are not always fully formed. Understanding very conceptual work takes a bit of unpacking, too.”

Duignan says the high school students’ reaction to A Plea for Playgrounds was, “Get on it, skate on it, bring it outdoors.”

“They have a grasp of the practical as well as the poetic. It’s what you hope for,” he adds.

Duignan and Raven have found that the North Lawndale and Pilsen students are currently making works in the form of political postcards, small posters, and zines that address clear questions they have about world issues, city issues, racism, and privilege.

Duignan says these methods are the perfect beginning forms of cultivating a social practice, and hopes he and Raven can continue to offer the students “high quality, critical art education practices that blend the contributions of the youth and community voices, curriculum dreaming, street art aesthetics, and performance.”

Zumbi Day will culminate in a collaborative multimedia art show in December. In the meantime, Duignan gives his students his favorite advice: “Do what you love to do, waste some time early, and then get focused.”