Author: Sarah Luyengi
Tucked away in East Garfield Park, the 345 Art Gallery is a home for local artists and students to display their creative work. Formerly a storefront church, the building serves as a multi-purpose space by offering youth-centered art programming, adult painting events, and, of course, art exhibits. I was recently invited to attend the opening of the Culture Capsule Exhibit that features South Side Chicago artists Hollie Davis, Tori Stewart, and Kelia Strong.
“The title of the Culture Capsule came from a brainstorm session,” said Stewart. “It was formed from the concept of highlighting works of art that captured people, places, and things that are reflective of Black experience and culture past, present, and future.”
Now, I’m no art connoisseur, but you don’t have to be to appreciate the Culture Capsule Exhibit: every piece is striking with vibrant colors, patterns, and captivating imagery that evokes the Black experience. Strong’s recent work experiments with texture by layering beads and hair clips to create portraits of Black women. With the Bus Stop series, Davis depicts the diversity of community by using a variety of bright colors. And hair is the focal point of many of Stewart’s pieces, like her Pencil Me In series, which debuted at the exhibit. While people are sketched in pencil, Stewart used different types of fabric for hair. Stewart, the organizer of the exhibit, met Strong at a South Holland art show where they were both featured. She later met Davis at the artist’s Connect Residency.
“I encourage people to make sure that you’re not waiting for permission to be who you are,” said Stewart. “If you feel like your heart and soul is tied to something, find a way to make it happen. Give yourself a chance. Build your own door and open it for yourself. See what’s on the other side.”
I had the opportunity to sit down with Stewart and discuss her story of how she identifies as an artist, her creative process, and the inception of the Culture Capsule Exhibit.
3CR: Tell us about yourself. Were there any other artists in your family?
TORI STEWART: I’m originally from the South Side of Chicago but I spent my teenage years in Gary, Indiana. Those were formative years and played a role in my evolution and process. My family is full of creative people but none of us are formally trained.My husband does woodworking. One of my grandmothers could go to the thrift store, furnish an apartment, and it would look like a department floor model. She had an eye for design. My other grandmother practiced the art of loving people through her food and counsel. To me, she was a work of art. When someone experiences art, it impacts them and leaves an impression. That’s what she did for me. I feel like a part of her spirit lives through me.
How did you start creating art?
I’ve always enjoyed every different aspect of art – music, fashion and everything in between. I took an art class in high school and my art teacher said I had promise. But I didn’t take it seriously because at the time I was really focused on hairstyling. Initially, I started doing hair to make extra money but then I started building a clientele. My grandfather was a carpenter and he wound up converting our enclosed sun porch into a beauty salon. Hair is how I expressed myself artistically for about 20 years. But in 2015, both of my grandmothers passed, and it really shocked me. I wasn’t aware until later that for the following year, I went through a functioning depression.
One day I found myself watching Bob Ross while I was combing one of my daughter’s hair. I remembered watching him during my childhood and that nostalgia gave me comfort. After watching a few episodes, I went out and bought some cheap paint and canvas, and started working on a painting. It took me about nine months to a year to finish – I would work on it here and there. I used jute and yarn to create it. When I finished it, I realized that I wasn’t sad anymore. Art saved me and catapulted me into a transformative phase of my life. Expression is vital for our happiness. If we’re not expressing ourselves authentically, we’re dying. Losing my grandmothers freed up something within me. I wanted to live my life fully for myself and not for others.
How did your background and history influence your art style?
My background in cosmetology definitely influences my art. I think Black hair is art in itself. In most of my pieces, I always make sure that our hair has its own spotlight just like in real life. By some people, our hair is admired and by others there is disdain for it. I’ve had my own hair journey like many other Black women – I went from relaxers to presser curls to even gluing wefts of weaves onto my scalp. We would blow dry and flat iron every inch of ancestry out of our hair to get it to blend in with this silky, yakky weave!
So I like to express every phase of my hair journey into my art. That’s why I use textiles and materials like yarn, jute, upholstery or denim to represent Black hair. The type of material I use is not typical for Black hair but Black hair texture isn’t typical for what other people consider hair to be like. Black hair is viewed as something that’s unfamiliar and unknown. I use my work to marry my two worlds of art and cosmetology.
How would you describe your creative process?
I always quote Dr. Myles Munroe without thinking – live fully, die empty. My emotions really guide me. It may sound weird but sometimes anger and agitation can really drive my work. It can come from something I’ve read in history or current events on the news. But I also need to be in a calm environment. My process moves in waves.
Tell us about the Culture Capsule Exhibit. How did you get involved?
It was actually my idea. I met the owner of 345 Art Gallery, Corry Williams, at the Black Girl Art Show back in 2021. He purchased one of my pieces and we stayed in touch. As a hairstylist, and also just as a person, I live by the idea that “I got my start by giving myself a start.” I wanted to put a show together on my own so I sent proposals to multiple galleries on the South and West Sides. Cory was one of the first responses and said yes with no questions asked. I reached out to Kelia and Hollie because I appreciated their drive and work ethic. Each one of us has our own level of confidence. I knew that they would be a great fit. It was really smooth sailing with the planning and production for the show. Cory was very accommodating and wonderful to work with. At the end of the day, this was really all a team effort.
The Culture Capsule Exhibit will be available until Tuesday, June 13 at the 345 Art Gallery located at 345 N Kedzie Ave, Chicago, IL 60612. The gallery is open from 2-6 p.m. CST Monday through Saturday and closed on Sundays. No admission fee required.