A Conversation with Deborah Stratman

Today, we're sharing a conversation with Deborah Stratman. Her experimental documentary film, The Illinois Parables, links the stories of diverse subjects, from indigenous peoples to natural disaster survivors. The common landscape connects these seemingly disparate stories of upheaval, violence, and struggle in order to illuminate the common threads of human endurance in the face of unimaginable difficulties. 

Deborah Stratman is a Chicago-based artist and filmmaker interested in landscapes and systems. Much of her work points to the relationships between physical environments and human struggles for power and control that play out on the land. Recent projects have addressed freedom, expansionism, surveillance, sonic warfare, public speech, ghosts, sinkholes, levitation, propagation, raptors, comets, and faith. She has exhibited internationally at venues including Centre Pompidou, Hammer Museum, Mercer Union, MoMA, Witte de With, Whitney Biennial and festivals including Ann Arbor, Berlinale, CPH/DOX, Full Frame, Oberhausen, Rotterdam, Sundance, and Viennale. Stratman is the recipient of Fulbright, Guggenheim and USA Collins fellowships, a Creative Capital grant, and an Alpert Award. She lives in Chicago where she teaches at the University of Illinois.

Conceived of as a tool, Weight of a World presents artworks that elicit lessons to be learned – and to be taught – from global conflict, local lore, and cultural identity. Presented in partnership with Facing History and OurselvesWeight of a World comprises sculptures, paintings, film, and supplementary programming that pivot upon two vast, inextricable categories: history and identity. The works on view recognize the roles of individuals within the long arc of history: how we are formed by our contexts, and how we may impact what comes next.

Weight of a World is on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from July 13 - September 15, 2018.

Still from "The Illinois Parables", 2016. Runtime 60 Min, 16mm or DCP

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: This work, The Illinois Parables - draws on events that are driven by faith, technology, and exodus. These events are particularly emblematic of the complex history of Illinois.. How did you narrow down to the 11 events featured in this film? What was the selection process like?

Deborah Stratman: I was trying to speak about as much as possible with the fewest possible moves. Working towards a maximalist minimalism. I didn’t know at the outset that I wanted 11 parables, but I knew 12 was wrong – too many Christian and calendrical associations. I settled on 11 because it’s a prime number, so irreducible, but also a little unsettled or imbalanced. That destabilization is a central theme in the film – it affords a kind of uncertainty that allows room for thinking. I tried to focus on historical events that were both extremely local, and political in their specificity, but also general or allegorical, able to rhyme with similar events across time. I wanted to avoid the most commonly re-told stories, like the great Chicago fire or ole’ Abe, and to avoid too many Chicago-based stories. Otherwise I would have tried to cram Studs Terkel and Harold Washington into the mix. A guiding principle was the idea of “thin places,” but rather than exclusively in the Jesuit sense of a place where the border between our world and the spirit world is thin, I was thinking about thin boundaries between sites with a heavy past but seemingly benign present.

WNG: Our partner organization, Facing History and Ourselves encourages people to examine history with the context of their identity. Are the events that you selected common regional knowledge? Were the local residents that you were engaging with generally aware/knowledgeable of the events?

DS: I think some of the histories might be common knowledge, but many are not. Most everybody knows Enrico Fermi had something to do with the critical mass equation that led to the first nuclear bomb, but maybe not that he was doing his experiments in Hyde Park. Many people will have heard of Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, but maybe they won’t have known how Ed Hanrahan and the States Attorney’s office created their own false version of events for the nightly news by building sets in their offices and re-enacting the raid. Probably quite a few people have heard of Nauvoo, but maybe not that Joseph Smith who is a prophet to the Mormons was martyred there. And I think far fewer would know how less than a year after the Mormons had been run out across the Mississippi, which was then the edge of our country, Etienne Cabet and his Icarian followers moved into the freshly vacated village to start their own socialist utopian community. There was one person I met in Macomb who knew the story of the alleged pre-teen ‘firestarter’ Wanet McNeill. And aound Murphysboro, quite a few people knew of the Tri-State Tornado (to this day, the deadliest in US history). There seems to be general familiarity with the Trail of Tears, though I think most people might not have known where specifically the purged Cherokees and other first nations peoples passed through Illinois. Or that more died in our state than in any other during those years of forced exodous. Folks around Alton know about the Piasa Bird legend because they’ve been repainting that mural for a century or more. But I’m not sure how many know that it’s in reference to a mural that Fr. Jacques Marquette and Joliet saw and recorded on their river journeying. And I’d guess most people don’t know Michael Heizer produced a land art work in Illinois, or even who he is for that matter.

Still from "The Illinois Parables", 2016. Runtime 60 Min, 16mm or DCP

WNG: Parables is an interesting term to use- implying that there are lessons to be learned from the past events, and it gives the film theological overtones. The pacing of the film encourages the viewer to have a meditative experience with the depicted scene. How did the idea of “parables” influence the pacing of the film and the cinematic style?

DS: Yes, I used the term ‘parable’ for its embrace of the allegorical, or the archetypal. I’d say my parables are more secular ones, but definitely invested in ethics. I want them to resonate with other histories and places. The pacing and style aren’t directly connected to the concept of parables. This has more to do with making a film that is extremely dense, and needing to provide space for people to ruminate and drift.

Still from "The Illinois Parables", 2016. Runtime 60 Min, 16mm or DCP

WNG: Can you speak a bit about the use archival footage in the film? How did you decide to use the original footage or to re-enact certain scenes? Was it based on the availability of existing footage?

DS: I’ll answer this more broadly by saying that I was interested in what version of events, or modes of presentation, we tend to trust more than others.  That’s why the film is so packed with different types of material, archival and otherwise. There are newspaper headlines, paintings, enactments and re-enactments, voiceovers, interviews and archival films.  My choice and alternation of these have more to do with a desire to keep shifting the register of evidence, than about access or availability.

Still from "The Illinois Parables", 2016. Runtime 60 Min, 16mm or DCP

To see more of Deborah Stratman's work, please visit her website.


Artist Interview: Alison Ruttan

Today, we share an interview with Alison Ruttan. Alison Ruttan is an artist who primarily works within topically focused projects. Each project comes out of her attempts to understand perceived contradictions in the world around her. For the past ten years she has been engaged with various questions surrounding the nature of violence as a part of the human condition. In the series “The Four Year War at Gombe”, Ruttan references Jane Goodall’s research on primate aggression to construct a parallel narrative of our own history of warfare. Throughout the making of that work and the research she was doing, Ruttan found herself becoming increasingly concerned about an endless state of war and what that said about human nature. The U.S. was in the middle of the war in Iraq, that would quickly engulf much of the Middle East. I began this ceramic work as a means of trying to understand something that was beyond my experience. It started from a place of empathy.

While the subject of this work focuses on the destruction caused by war, specifically, the damage that civilians endure, it is equally impossible to ignore how strange and interesting these images of destroyed cities are. Modernity’s presence can be seen in the gridded structures revealed by the destruction as well as the directional movements within the collapses themselves. A feeling of the uncanny is present in the juxtaposition of buildings that feel familiar, yet now strange in their mutilated forms. The experience is further complicated as looking becomes entangled in remembered images from film, video games and other fictions, not to mention the engagement we might have with the formal language of abstraction while contemplating these destroyed cities. The uncomfortableness we experience navigating these thoughts, frames a perspective that is perhaps American, after all, we are safely looking from here and not there experiencing.

Conceived of as a tool, Weight of a World presents artworks that elicit lessons to be learned – and to be taught – from global conflict, local lore, and cultural identity. Presented in partnership with Facing History and OurselvesWeight of a World comprises sculptures, paintings, film, and supplementary programming that pivot upon two vast, inextricable categories: history and identity. The works on view recognize the roles of individuals within the long arc of history: how we are formed by our contexts, and how we may impact what comes next.

Weight of a World is on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from July 13 - September 15, 2018.


Triple Collapse, 2018, inset ceramic, black nested tables, 20 x 25 x 33 inches


Weinberg/Newton Gallery: How did you first become interested in addressing violence and its relationships to human nature through your artwork?

Alison Ruttan: I have always been interested in trying to decipher human behavior. I suppose it relates to growing up in multiple environments and cultural customs that I had to negotiate. As an adult, I have been interested in the ways culture and biology determine behavior. I am particularily drawn to the kinds of behavior that are part of patterns of learned behavior and those that are seemingly hard wired. I made work about sex and appetite for many years but switched to looking at aggression soon after 9/11. I use my art practice to try to understand the deep anger that fuels aggression. I have looked to fields like evolutionary biology, feminism, political science and history as sources of my inquiry. My most recent work has concerned itself with the state of endless war.

WNG: Our partner organization for this exhibition, Facing History and Ourselves, approaches history through the lens of identity and the individual. I feel your work does this in a unique way even without depicting any people. Through focusing on the destruction of urban homes, and often placing your sculptures upon or within domestic furniture, we’re constantly brought back to the effects of war on community. Can you tell us more about your choice to focus on civilian structures as opposed to civilians themselves?

AR: It is the feminist side of me that led me to the war work. I often feel that those who start wars (mostly men) are driven, (at best), by principles that often exclude consideration of the cost paid by those who have to live with the consequences. Chris Hedges writes in the book, “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”, writes about the terrible seductiveness of war and the problem with the idea of “herocism” that war promises. I was very affected by the images I saw on the nightly news during the war in Iraq. I was also very distrustful of my own countries involvement in the Middle East. I did not think we knew what we were doing.

Initially I was working in video and photography in related projects exploring the origins of violence. When I began the ceramic work, I initially tried to include people in the wreckage but I quickly saw that it too easily pointed to the emotion you should feel but left little opportunity for a more reflective experience. By removing the people and presenting only the shell, the remains of a home, it points to those who are now gone. The building most damaged are often built in “The International Style”, a type of architecture found in cities all over the world. Many of the buildings look like the same kind of homes we also live in. In the more recent work that integrates home furnishings with the suggestion of rubble or shattered buildings, my intention was to point to a domestic life lost.


Pile, 2018, White Console and ceramic debris/parts, 14 x 27.5 x 34 inches

WNG: As spectators, removed from the direct impact of warfare, we may see photographs of ruin and devastation but we can often become oversaturated with the images we encounter through our screens every day. Do you think the physicality of your sculptural installations provides the viewer with a heavier impact than the photograph is able to?

AR: We live in news world that largely focuses on one sensational story at a time. I think that when people see blown up cities night after night they begin to lose their shock. Andy Warhol speaks about repetition as having a numbing effect.  Sadly the horror of these images can become ordinary. In my work, I think the physicality and intimate scale invites you to peer inside to maybe understand more, the craft of how they are made also distracts your attention, but I believe the distraction holds your attention and your thoughts are allowed to linger as you move between the various emotions that the pieces elicit.

WNG: In your piece, All Down the Line, you show a row of nine buildings -- each one more crumbled than the next. This piece in particular hints at the passage of time and the perpetual state of unrest, as I can imagine one building slowly collapsing after the other. I wonder what role does time play in your work? From the fact that some of the ceramic structures you build are based off of images of specific buildings which may no longer be standing, to the fact that you personally have to painstakingly construct that which is destructed.

AR: The time I am describing is gone, these sculpture represent an in between state, neither livable or bulldozed over into empty lots. They are records of a sort, as each building is based on source photographs of specific buildings. This particular scene of the white row houses, all the same, looked like dominoes falling, I wondered how it might be to live at the end of the block that was hardly touched. Perhaps later or even now, new cities will begin to build on these same sites and the events will become just a memory.

All Down the Line, 9 Ceramic Buildings, table, slip covered plywood top, Table, 26 x 84 X 32 inches

WNG: You mention on your website that you began the ceramic work as a way to understand something that was beyond your own experience, starting from a place of empathy. What do you feel you’ve learned or helped others learn throughout the making of this work?

AR: In some ways I have learned nothing that points to making any of this better. I have learned that we don’t learn from our mistakes very well. Maybe that is something that should make us more wary, more cautious. I have tried through this project to make myself more knowledgeable about the history of this region. That is the least I would expect from those eager to start wars.  I am trying to humanize these events, to help people empathise with those who have been caught up in them. To see themselves in such circumstances. I am horrified that the US, has let in only 11 Syrian refugees this year. I see this work as contributing to the work of many artists, journalists and concerned citizens who are trying to keep these issues visible. It is especially important now, when our attention is continually diverted by the antics of a president who dismisses the value of being an informed leader, preferring to rely on his instincts instead.


Weight of a World installation at Weinberg/Newton Gallery

To view more of Ruttan's work, please visit her website.

Artist Interview: Orkideh Torabi

Today we share an interview with Orkideh Torabi. Torabi's paintings, made using a unique transfer process of fabric dye on cotton, depict oafish men in garish, sickly colors. These caricatures incorporate lush patterns and imagery from traditional Persian miniatures in order to emphasize the connections between power dynamics of the past and the present. She renders her male subjects as goofy and goggle–eyed in order to rattle the patriarchal precedent of her home country Iran, and of contemporary society at large.

Conceived of as a tool, Weight of a World presents artworks that elicit lessons to be learned – and to be taught – from global conflict, local lore, and cultural identity. Presented in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves, Weight of a World comprises sculptures, paintings, film, and supplementary programming that pivot upon two vast, inextricable categories: history and identity. The works on view recognize the roles of individuals within the long arc of history: how we are formed by our contexts, and how we may impact what comes next.

Weight of a World is on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from July 13 - September 15, 2018.

Sit tight, 2018, Fabric dye on stretched cotton, 43 x 37 inches

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: Your work does such an excellent job at weaving together intense criticism with a charming levity. Each of your creative choices, from the caricature-like portraits bathed in saturated color to your humorous titles, all work together to lift the veil on patriarchal culture in Iran and beyond. How did you come to realize this was an issue you wanted to tackle through your work?

Orkideh Torabi: I was always concerned about women’s life and situation in a male dominated society. My experiences came from a larger aspect of daily life. Growing up, I started to realize how woman did not have all the same options as men. The experiences with daily life favored men over women, and made me think how my life might be different if none of these problems ever existed.

Since I came to the United States I was able to meet people from different backgrounds that have the same insight and personal struggles. I began to realize how ridiculous the circumstances are for woman. This became an outlet for myself. It made me want to depict all of these aspects in the work.

I also wanted to understand my artistic identity and the language in my painting. Thinking about my relationship to Western art history and Persian art history. I was looking for a language to express what I wanted to communicate.

WNG: Many of your paintings show these men in intimate positions, such as the washing of another man’s hair in I hear you buddy, or the 3 men standing behind a sheet in The Greater Wall, where it’s unclear if they are fully clothed or not. What role do you feel this intimacy plays in the work?

OT: These men are in the places that women are fully removed from. In fact, this is a space that only men are allowed to go. In these societies, women are considered as the other and they are not the activators.

These men have control of everything. The intimacy has been established and they have the freedom to gossip. They can do as they wish without any female present. For example, the painting “I here you buddy” shows two men who are gossiping about their wives in the public bath. Making these men more intimate with each other. The male power, masculinity, and insecurities are the qualities these men share.

It's never enough, 2018, Fabric dye on stretched cotton, 43 x 36 inches

WNG: You also have a unique way of integrating cultural references across time and space. You often place your depictions of Iranian men into feminine roles from historically western paintings such as the Birth of Venus or the Madonna and child, calling their masculinity further into question. Can you tell us more about how you chose those particular western tropes to insert your characters into?

OT: Usually, when I start a new body of work I have multiple narratives in mind. Then I start working on some sketches, gathering different resources, and research. At times I look at art historical images to get some reference. It can range from Persian miniature to a historically western painting, it doesn’t matter. The revisiting of history has been a major part of my recent body of works.

For example, when I started the “Madonna” series I came across these images of Madonna and the child and I thought it’s a good place to start. I wanted to have my own version of it.

In this case, I replaced the female figure in the painting with the male figures. It just reminds us of the actual painting that I am referring to, but the whole composition is different. In fact, this parody is bringing a new life to these images.

My works are not about any specific nations or nationalities. These men can be from anywhere around the world to different communities.

That moment!, 2018, Fabric dye on stretched cotton, 43 x 37 inches

WNG: Your work brings up an important conversation about identity and freedom of expression--topics that our current partner organization, Facing History and Ourselves, integrate heavily into their curriculum. Would you share with us a bit about your experience of making this work here in the U.S. knowing how differently it may be perceived in Iran?

OT: This content was always there and continued even when I moved to the United States but the way I have executed the works has changed. The language, the aesthetics have evolved to make the message clearer. I used to talk about these issues through painting women but I found it problematic since the images that I produced usually were misinterpreted. So, I started creating these characters, using contemporary men, intermingling them with the images from art history.

I believe these paintings can be well-received in Iran. The art community in Iran is pretty open and there is an understanding between galleries and artists. They are more open to talk about these issues.

Where are all the houries?, 2018, Fabric dye on stretched cotton, 37 x 43 inches

WNG: One of my favorite pieces is Where are all the houries?, which features an angel-winged man floating in a sea of mustard yellow clouds wondering where all the heavenly virgins he’s been promised are; he even appears to be wearing a shirt patterned with a Venus symbol. I find this one to be the most cheeky and humorous, but also one that really exemplifies the powerful wit in your voice as an artist and a woman. How do you find yourself able to toe the line of satire so well?

OT: When one becomes fully aware of their surroundings they have the ability to be critical about it. I didn’t want to be outspoken with direct reference about the issues that I am talking about so I added humor to my work. The element of satire becomes more universal and is accessible to different ranges of people. I think very serious things can be discussed through satire.

I also think when a content is heavy with satire it can help the viewer to make more connections to the artwork. It’s a way to be discreet and humorous at the same time.

Weight of a World installation at Weinberg/Newton Gallery

To view more of Torabi's work visit her website.

Artist Interview: Judith Brotman

Today we share an interview with Judith Brotman, one of six artists that make up the exhibition, The Tip of My Tongue, on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from January 26 - March 17, 2018.

The Tip of My Tongue is organized in partnership with the Chicago Literacy Alliance and aims to draw out the complexities of language as a tool not only for communication but also for connection, discovery, and growth. This group exhibition takes an expansive approach to the theme of literacy as it explores the many issues caught up in the web of words we each navigate, from notions of identity and belonging, to autonomy and self-expression. Through sound, color, book arts, and text, this group of works by six Chicago-based artists provides access points to a multiplicity of voices, ideas, viewpoints, and conversations.

New Word, 2018, 1,012 invented words, graphite 127 x 44.5 inches

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: Your piece New Word, holds a significant place in this exhibition centered on an expansive approach to literacy. New Word consists of 1,000 words uniquely invented by you and written across the gallery walls. Visitors are invited to cross out a word and keep it as their own. You’ve even created a contract for them to sign stating that you, the artist, promise not to give this word to anyone else. We’ve had an overwhelmingly excited response to this project, people seem struck by the notion of having a word that is all their own to place meaning to. You preface the work with a quote from the Zohar: “I have been pursuing this word all the days of my life” --a beautiful sentiment. Can you tell us a little about how you conceived of this idea and the origin of that quote?

Judith Brotman: The Zohar is considered to be the most important text (13th Century) in the Jewish mystical tradition or Kabbalah.  I find much of the Kabbalistic writing deeply moving although I am not a practitioner in any literal sense of the word.  The phrase, “I have been pursuing this word all the days of my life” (this translation is from Daniel Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah) is the inspiration for my project, New Word.  I take this passage to mean that we—each of us—have a central core focus.  If we live our lives with our eyes open—mindfully—we will come closer and closer to the essence of who we are over the course of a lifetime.  I don’t think of this as an easy process, quite the opposite. My hope is that the gift of a word might inspire you to engage a bit more deeply in this process.  On the other hand, the word is a gift and the “owner” is not actually obliged to do anything whatsoever. All of my work is concerned with the possibility, but not the certainty, of transformation.  I am extremely interested in the fact that we are faced with continual choices each and every day and in how these choices play out over a lifetime. Some, of course, matter far more than others, although it’s not always clear in advance which ones will be most significant.  Most of my projects, including New Word, involve what I call “complicated generosity.”  On the one hand, I am giving something away that is rather appealing.  However, I do have an underlying wish that in, accepting this gift, you might take on the obligation or challenge of pursing your word.  Defining what I mean by complicated generosity is a bit tricky. I certainly believe in generosity and think our world needs a whole lot more of it!  I also think people are complex and their motivations are, too. This includes the motivation to be generous. Rather than this being a criticism of generosity--it is not--I think of it as a reminder to be paying attention to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

WNG: An interesting conversation arose about this piece during one of our high school workshops. Someone posed the question, “Can words have ownership?” -- I’ve personally seen this piece as less about ownership of a word and more about the gifting of something more akin to a meditation phrase, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that.

JB: Great question about the possibility of words having ownership! I worked with an attorney in the writing of the contract for this project and I was curious about that, too.  In fact, a word cannot be copyrighted and anyone can theoretically use “your selected word” from New Word.  If you read the New Word contract carefully, one of the things it indicates is that I personally won’t give your word to anyone else but it doesn’t (and cannot) prohibit anyone else from using it. That said, you are correct that the piece is not truly about literal ownership. It is about a kind of meaning, understanding, and value that has the potential of revealing itself over time only if you have made a commitment to paying close attention. The contract, which as I mentioned was drawn up by an attorney, also indicates that you can’t sue me in regards to your word!  This was not something I would have thought to add, but the attorney was quite insistent about its being in the document. I hope it doesn’t detract from the gifting aspect of the piece!

New Word (detail), 2018, 1,012 invented words, graphite 127 x 44.5 inches

WNG: You also have an audio piece in this exhibition titled The Sensation of Air Upon Your Skin (and Other Things You Will Know When You Are There). I’ve poured over this piece a number of times and find it incredibly evocative. The Chicago Literacy Alliance’s mission is not only to provide the tools necessary to be functionally literate, but also to promote a life-long love of reading and writing. Literacy is a way to expand the ability to express oneself, to share stories, and to connect with others. Your audio piece in many ways exemplifies the second half of this mission. It feels very journalistic, like a record of personal history or even a description of an imagined future. Each section of the audio begins with the line, “One day when you are very far from home…” -- are you speaking to yourself in this piece?

JB: My intention in this audio piece is to narrate to “you.”  I have talked about complicated generosity and I think that it’s embedded in this piece, too.  I sometimes describe this piece (and others I’ve made) as a mixture of: 1) a horoscope for your future  2) a push for you to wake up and smell the flowers and 3) my need to be bossy. The Sensation of Air Upon Your Skin (and Other Things You Will Know When You are There) includes over 100 mini fictions of what will happen to you one day when you are far from home. They are all very different, one from the next, but just as an example:

“One day when you are very far from home, you will meet God during intermission in a concert hall. You have a lifetime of questions you’ve been saving for this encounter but you’re distracted by being insanely attracted to God. Instead of asking God why life is filled with so much pain and misery, you ask God out for a date. Things go well.” 

I began writing this piece while I was on sabbatical leave in Vienna and Prague; I was very far from home. Most of the scenarios have some tiny inflection of something I experienced while I was away. It is not typically obvious what that component is; I don’t intend for it to be. The rest is invention often in a kind of dreamlike/parallel universe way.  People often tell me these scenarios seem real despite the strangeness of them. I think it’s a result of the infusion of something that I actually experienced no matter how small that component is. The situations move rapidly from ordinary to ecstatic to erotic to disturbing and back again. Things don’t always go the way you might have planned…sometimes better than you ever imagined and other times not so much. I am, by my own admission, a Type A personality who wants to control 93% (actually 99%) of everything that happens.  For better and for worse, it just doesn’t work that way. I think many people struggle to locate certainty in an uncertain world; it doesn’t exist. My narrations are a nod to a world of certain uncertainty and trying not to miss any of it.

The Sensation of Air Upon Your Skin (and Other Things You Will Know When You are There), 2017, Audio 31 minutes and 27 seconds

WNG: Earlier during the exhibition you held a program called The Reading Project, where you asked participants to read aloud to you. How do you feel the act of listening functions in relationship to literacy?

JB: I think a lot about the relationship between reading silently and being read to. (I know I’m straying slightly off your question) I’m an avid reader and reading silently provides me with a kind of nourishment that nothing else does.  Being read to, while it can be an extraordinary experience, involves very different parameters than silent reading. For one thing, being read to involves a linear experience of the text. You cannot go back and reread the previous page or line.  You cannot savor the same passage multiple times. Reading silently is a private experience involving the reader and the text. Being read to, by contrast, involves a wider range of sensory experiences, including the sight and sound of the reader.  Also, at least for me, I find that my mind wanders more when I’m being read to and focusing takes greater effort. Returning to your question, I feel that the act of listening and the focus it takes emphasizes the empathy component of reading. Reading takes us out of our own heads and gives us perspectives we might never imagine.  Listening adds an extra relationship to the reading equation. Instead of it being simply your private relationship to the text, other components-- the reader and their relationship to the text-- are added. You mention in another question, “Literacy is a way to expand the ability to express oneself, to share stories, and to connect with others.”  Listening is an opportunity to connect by means of a shared story. I have strong feelings about the necessity of listening and spaces for listening. It is not easy to listen open heartedly and we live in times that are begging for these efforts.

WNG: Is there any project you’re working on now that you’re particularly excited about?

JB: I’m working on two projects that I’m excited about—one long term and the other more immediate.

I’ve been writing short multiple choice questions (on napkins) and posting them on Instagram.  They are questions for and about “you”; I don’t evaluate, respond or judge the answers. (Ok, I try not to do any of those!)  My main interest in putting these questions/choices out into the world is for you to ruminate on them. They are meant to be funny but (as is my usual when I’m writing) there’s typically something serious underlying what I’ve written.

The other project is an in-process work called 1001 Nights - More or Less and is composed of many (potentially 1001) small weavings on paper. There will also be an audio component in which I briefly describe (but not in a one to one correspondence to the weavings) 1001 odd tales. It will be the first time my audio work and an installation will function in such an interconnected manner.

Works in progress shared by Judith Brotman

JB: Thank you so much for these fantastic and thoughtful questions.  Everything about this exhibition was pure joy…..and this includes working with curator, Kasia Houlihan and exhibiting at Weinberg/Newton Gallery along with the extraordinary artists Kirsten Leenaars, Andy Moore, Huong Ngo,  Regin Igloria & North Branch Projects, and Udita Upadhyaya.

I also need to add that New Word would not have been the same (or even close) had the words not been transcribed on the wall so beautifully by another extraordinary artist, Tim Nickodemus!  Had I written the words, the selection process would not have been so appealing. I grew up thinking I was going to be a doctor and seem to have acquired the typical doctor’s terrible handwriting. My shift from  pre-med to art is another one of my transformation narratives; I seem to gravitate toward these stories!

Tim Nickodemus transcribing Judith Brotman's New Word on the walls at Weinberg/Newton Gallery

To learn more about Judith Brotman please visit her website.

Partner Interview: Ken Bigger, Executive Director of Chicago Literacy Alliance

Today we share an interview with Ken Bigger, Executive Director of the Chicago Literacy Alliance, our partner organization for The Tip of My TongueThe Chicago Literacy Alliance is an association of more than 100 organizations helping to meet literacy needs for people of all ages and backgrounds. It is dedicated to a mission of increasing the combined impact of the Chicago community’s literacy organizations by providing opportunities for creative and effective collaboration. Working together, the CLA and its members collectively envision a 100% literate Chicago.

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: The history of the Chicago Literacy Alliance is very unique and based not in competition but in collaboration for the greater good. In what ways do the individual CLA organizations work together to advance literacy?

Ken Bigger: Our member organizations work together through the CLA by sharing best practices and professional development programs. They develop organic, entrepreneurial connections that remain responsive to the constantly changing complexity of literacy education. These connections emerge into new programs, and in at least one instance, into new nonprofits. They serve as referral sources for one another. The Literacenter is a terrific tool in facilitating these collaborations, but it is not our only tool.

Although our members have strong, distinctive, and strategic approaches to driving greater literacy, no single tactic will cover all the necessary ground. One of the biggest factors affecting children’s literacy and prospects for success in school is the literacy level of their parents. To meet the challenges and break the cycles of illiteracy and aliteracy, we must be active among all ages and communities.

The Literacenter, hub of the Chicago Literacy Alliance

WNG: You joined the CLA community as Executive Director earlier this year. What about the organization drew you to this position?

KB: I’ve always been a writer, and I continue to work on becoming a better reader. I see literacy as essential to people reaching their potential—not just to understand the world, but to make themselves understood to it. Literacy is a fundamental human right, but there’s no switch that gets flipped from “illiterate” to “literate.” We can all become more literate. Elevating literacy as a value for all will help the people who need the most literacy support.

I also see literacy as a core capacity that addresses several challenges at once. Beyond fundamental goals of education and workforce readiness, it also addresses socio-economic inequality and social justice challenges. It helps us talk and listen to one another in civil society, informing our ability to be democratic citizens and to work with one another to improve our community.

Ken Bigger, Executive Director of Chicago Literacy Alliance

WNG: Being new to the CLA, do you have any particular visions for the ways it can grow in the future?

KB: We’re here to serve our members. We are constantly working to find new ways to provide meaningful collaborations and professional development opportunities that allow literacy organizations to be more productive and better connected. One of our biggest opportunities for growth is to be able to advocate on their behalf and on behalf of the cause of literacy. The Tip of My Tongue has been a wonderful way to elevate the visibility of this issue, which is a challenge that often goes unseen. We’re grateful to the Weinberg/Newton Gallery for making it possible. We hope to build from this effort and contribute to a broader public discussion. We are also looking for ways to bring more organizations into our “big tent.”

WNG: With an estimated 882,000 of Chicago adults having low literacy levels and 54% of CPS students not meeting reading standards, what are some of the biggest contributing factors to these rates? And are there ways we as a community can be proactive in helping to improve them?

KB: As I suggest above, I think part of the answer to this question appears in the pairing of those two statistics. Trying to fix one of those problems alone will not fix the other. A child whose parent can’t or doesn’t read stands a lesser chance of reaching their literacy potential. Our member organizations represent a wide range of expertise and are working together to ensure that people of all ages and backgrounds have the resources they need to be come literate.

Community members have multiple ways they can get involved. Many of our member organizations recruit, train, and deploy volunteers across Chicago to support adult literacy, school-based literacy, and early childhood literacy. Book donations to our member partners or to school libraries also give people a way to support the cause. Financial contributions to the CLA and its member organizations help add capacity and increase our effectiveness in pursuit of our goal of a 100% literate Chicago.

Finally, participation in our member programs that elevate reading and writing will help in driving the cultural change that will aid the efforts of all our organizations. One of the reasons that I love doing this work in Chicago is that this city is the place where many have come to write their American stories. There’s much to celebrate in that, and there’s much in there that shows us a path to realize our vision.

The Painted One, 2018, North Branch Projects movable book station, installed at The Literacenter

WNG: The CLA makes it clear that their goals are deeper than functional literacy alone; the organization also cares about developing and nurturing a lifelong love of reading and writing. Can you expand on the ancillary effects of becoming literate as an individual and as a community?

KB: Three things: understanding, empathy, and self-expression.

Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” contains the passage, “…she opened up a book of poems and handed it to me, written by an Italian poet in the 13th century. And every one of those words rang true and glowed like burning coal, pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you…”

The power of this line is not about the delights of pre-Renaissance Italian literature. It testifies to literacy’s power to help us understand ourselves and each other. Through literacy, we learn in powerful and inimitable ways that we are not alone. We understand ourselves in the present day, we connect with others in the present day, and we learn that we have connections to those who lived hundreds or thousands of years before us.

One of the most prominent cultural phenomena of this decade has been Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton. It tells the story of a person who turned the world upside down through writing. The musical itself also exemplifies the power of writing, in this case Miranda’s, to inform our current values, aspirations, and conversations. The recent Hamilton Mix-Tape includes a new song, “Wrote My Way Out,” that taps into that spirit, evoking literacy’s capacity to allow us to transcend our circumstances—first in our imaginations, then in reality.

Literacy is key to imagining new possibilities for ourselves, both as individuals and as a community. It’s vital that we don’t just stop with making sure that children can sound out the words, we need empower everyone with tools to catalyze imaginations through self-expression. Many of our members do this. 826 CHI, for example, gives kids the tools of written storytelling as a way to find their own voices. Chicago abounds with past and present examples of people who “wrote their way out.”

The Painted One (detail), North Branch Projects movable book station, installed at The Literacenter

WNG: The Tip of My Tongue was curated with the CLA’s mission in mind. From your perspective, were there any particular artworks in the exhibition that you resonated with most?

KB: I appreciated all the contributions to this exhibit. Each artist helped unfold for me another way of looking at the power of words. If I had to pick one, I would say that Judith Brotman’s New Word captures my imagination for being so participatory, and through that, very evocative of the power of words both to allow us to say something distinctive about ourselves and connect with other people. New Word invites viewers to become active collaborators in her art by selecting a novel word of Brotman’s devising, adopt it as their own, and assign it a meaning. The word is unique, but exists within a context of English syllables and roots. It is personal, but inescapably shared.