CPS Teens Team Up to Curate 'Forever Young' Exhibit

High school students have always played a role in Chicago’s art scene. There are many organizations that sponsor students’ crafting, but Elizabeth Shank, founder of Good News Only, had another idea: Shank’s students are curators.

As a college student, Shank wanted to trade in her sociology degree for a photography degree after she nurtured a passion for taking photos while studying abroad. But, it was her senior year. It was too late to make changes and still graduate on time. So, sociology it was. But, Shank didn’t let her newfound passion go to rest. She wrote her final thesis on photography’s impact on the civil rights movement to convey art and media’s impact on society.

After graduation, Shank worked at a small, but prestigious cooperative agency in New York called Magnum Photos. Magnum exposed Shank to the different departments of not only photography, but also editorials, advertising, archiving and publishing in the art world. Shank now shows her students different perspectives of the art industry with Good News Only. “There are so many things you can do while you make your own art,” Shank says of her time with Magnum.

Shank eventually ended up at Bruce Silverstein Gallery in Manhattan. She and her husband are both from the Midwest and really enjoy living in a lively city, so when Shank wanted a change from New York, Chicago seemed like the natural place to move.

After Shank’s move, she dabbled in a few different Chicago projects. She worked at an alderman’s office, tutored at Senn High School in Edgewater and family resource center Christopher House, and helped with a public art piece at the Boys and Girls Club in Uptown. Shank enjoyed these experiences, but she wanted a project that she could really own. She then started Good News Only.

“I found the storefront, and things just kind of snowballed,” Shank says casually. After choosing her location at 5604 N. Ridge Ave., Shank recruited six students from Senn, a school that prides itself on being student-centered. There, according to art teacher Benjamin Jaffe, educators aim to cultivate an environment where students have the freedom and capacity to choose their own paths. Shank’s first class consisted of two freshmen, three sophomores and one senior from Senn.

Since Shank treats her students as curators, she wants them to learn about what goes into creating a gallery.

“The students are learning a completely different aspect of art,” says Jaffe. “It enables them to open their minds as to what a career in art might look like… When the kids graduate from college, they’ll follow these paths, but we want them to be aware of them from the beginning.”

Shank was inspired by her new Edgewater neighborhood. She wanted Good News Only to incorporate the city on a grand scale while also maintaining the small scale of local diversity.

Part of the purpose of the gallery is to fill the students’ time with fun, interactive activities. Shank started with field trips. The group was open to learning about Chicago. Some of them were new to museums and had never been to Michigan Avenue. Shank felt that in addition to the exploration of art, they should discover the city and learn the CTA.

“I wanted to give them the confidence to get out there and explore,” Shank says.

Next, Shank asked her students the basic and essential questions: What is an arts organization? Why should we care? What do collections show? How are they organized?

Shank’s students ventured throughout the city to find their answers. She took them to art museums downtown, gradually making her way to smaller art organizations and galleries — examples of what she hoped they would create at Good News Only. They met with local artists at their studios as they began to envision the collection of pieces in their exhibition.

“The best part of my experience was visiting other galleries,” says sophomore student curator Jackie Mauleon. “I never really went to galleries before Good News Only… but I had so much fun.”

They even stopped by the art industry organization Terry Dowd, where they learned about the process of shipping, handling, packing and storing various art projects.

“When I felt we had the building blocks in place, we started the exhibition,” Shank says.

As the students gained an understanding of the behind-the-scenes and center-stage aspects of a gallery, they began brainstorming possible themes for their exhibition.

Shank prompted the students to narrow their ideas down to topics that they felt they were already experts in. She wanted them to be completely comfortable in and knowledgeable about their exhibition at the end of the process. They discussed their topics of interest, such as school, books, television, music and fashion. The students eventually decided on music. They scrolled through their music collections, trying to find something that would capture each of their unique styles and personalities.

“Someone mentioned Jay Z’s ‘Young Forever,’ and everyone’s eyes lit up,” Shank says.

After they agreed to make “Forever Young” the theme, they dissected the “Young Forever” lyrics and turned them into concrete subjects that they could look for in potential art pieces for the collection.

“That song was one of my favorite songs before the program, so when we came up with the idea of using it, I was very happy because it really makes me feel the message,” Jackie says of using “Young Forever” as the musical inspiration for the exhibition’s theme.

The students chose to look for images of being youthful or materials associated with youth, that were interactive, playful or elicited emotion. They wanted the exhibition to be relative; it should be for kids and adults alike. The exhibition would treat youth as a state of mind, not a number.

With “Forever Young” in mind, the students mulled over different works they’d like to use and eventually chose their 12 featured pieces.

One of the pieces, a string sculpture, is by School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduate student Nico Gardner. His complex sculpture of strings intricately linked by wire is actually a huge marionette puppet that decorates the corner of the exhibit.

The exhibition also features another School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduate student, Christina Long, who focuses on mixed media. Her work in “Forever Young” uses wall drawings and dolls to create a playful, complex piece.

Another piece the student curators chose is by self-trained artist Zoe Strauss. Strauss is well-known for her community art displays. She currently has an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called “Ten Years.” Her photo featured in the “Forever Young” exhibition is called “Mattress Flip.”

Though her background is in photography, Shank was open to all artistic options. Getting to know Chicago artists who work in different mediums has helped Shank and her students cultivate a representation of what they hope to continue in future exhibitions.

Shank’s influence on the students has been a significant part of the success of their first exhibition.

“They are intellectually adept,” Jaffe says of Shank’s students. “I think a lot of people don’t give them credit for what they’re capable of, and she does that. They like that she respects their intellectual capacity, but she also gives them that sense of safety. I think they know as they’re going through that this is really special. I’ve never heard of a program like this, ever.”

When the exhibition finally opened on March 3, the students seemed to feel good about their work and about themselves. Shank says that the students’ exposure through Good News Only fostered their artistic interests even more. Shank learned from her students, as well. She learned further what she taught them: There are no wrong answers in art or interpretation. Her students also taught her to be open, to be curious and to take risks.

“That was something that came out of the ‘Forever Young’ exposition,” Shank says. “From Jay Z’s song lyrics — taking risks, living in the moment, being mindful. The kids definitely remind me of those things.”

You can visit the “Forever Young” exposition at 5604 N. Ridge Ave. until May 25, 2012.

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