The Beauty in Transformation: Emerging Artist Stephanie Lane Sutton Discusses the Radical Arts Collective West Side School for the Desperate

The Beauty in Transformation: Emerging Artist Stephanie Lane Sutton Discusses the Radical Arts Collective West Side School for the Desperate

It is Stephanie Lane Sutton’s ability to transmute life’s perilous lessons into art that make her such an engaging person. When she speaks, she speaks with a rare mix of passionate conviction and humor that makes you hang on to her every word.

Sutton, along with poets Nate Olison and Kevin Kern, founded a radical arts collective in Logan Square called West Side School for the Desperate. Artists, writers and poets meet in an apartment and talk shop and culture while drinking beer and filling up ashtrays; in short, it is an artistic paradise, a place where stories are told, and original ideas are nourished. The collective takes its name from the book “The Savage Detectives” by Roberto Bolano:

 “Now let’s take the desperate reader, who is presumably the audience for the literature of desperation. What do we see? First: the reader is an adolescent or an immature adult, insecure, all nerves. He’s the kind of fucking idiot (pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther. Second: he’s a limited reader. Why limited? That’s easy: because he can only read the literature of desperation, or books for the desperate, which amounts to the same thing, the kind of person or freak who’s unable to read all the way through In Search of Lost Time, for example, or The Magic Mountain (a paradigm of calm, serene, complete literature, in my humble opinion), or for that matter, Les Miserables or War and Peace. Am I making myself clear? Good. So I talked to them, told them, warned them, alerted them to the dangers they were facing. It was like talking to a wall. Furthermore: desperate readers are like the California gold mines. Sooner or later they’re exhausted! Why? It’s obvious! One can’t live one’s whole life in desperation. In the end the body rebels, the pain becomes unbearable, lucidity gushes out in great cold spurts. The desperate reader (and especially the desperate poetry reader, believe me) ends up by turning away from books. Inevitably he ends up becoming just plain desperate. Or he’s cured! And then, as part of the regeneration process, he returns slowly – as if wrapped in swaddling cloths, as if under a rain of dissolved sedatives – he returns, as I was saying, to a literature written for cool, serene readers, with their heads set firmly on their shoulders. This is what’s called (by me, if nobody else) the passage from adolescence to adulthood . . .”

West Side hosts a monthly reading series, a monthly poetry slam, live musical performances, gallery receptions, open mics and a myriad of other opportunities for Chicago area artists to show off their talent and connect with other artists in the community.

It sounds similar to Paris in the 20s, doesn’t it? This allusion is not lost on Sutton, however she does not want West Side to take all the credit.

“It does feel like we’re doing something significant, but we’re not the only artistic collective in Chicago like this, we’re just one of many. There is a kind of magic happening in Chicago now, a kind of movement, where artists can flourish that I don’t think is happening in any other part of the nation.”

Interestingly enough, West Side School for the Desperate just celebrated its two-year anniversary. The event brought together artists, poets and musicians in an evening that included performance art, live music and poetry celebrating the entire collective and the community that West Side built. For the event, Sutton collaborated with resident visual arts curator of the WSSD, Julia Victor, on a performance art piece inspired by their time growing up together in Detroit. Up until the event, Sutton had been unfamiliar with performance art, but now she says she finds it to be a fun and unique way to express one’s self.

When Sutton is not working on West Side School for the Desperate, she is a youth mentor for Chicago Public Schools, a position she’s held since 2011. She loves to mentor because of the relationships she builds and also because the youth inspires her.

“Because there’s not that huge of an age gap, I feel like we can still learn from each other, and they can look up to me as a role model because it wasn’t so long ago that I was where they are in their lives.”

Sutton is fueled by a desire to express herself creatively while also forming a connection with audiences through shared emotional experiences. However, there was a time in her life when this was not always so. After an experience with sexual assault, Sutton delved into a deep depression, one where her voice became ossified and her light dulled. However, it was art that resurrected her and she made a promise to herself to use artistic expression as a way to transmute negative experiences into raw and passionate works of art. In a way, Stephanie Lane Sutton is not unlike a diamond: distress and perilous encounters has made her into a diamond, the negativity has only made her stronger and more fearless in her art, and all the more beautiful and invaluable to the Chicago literary community.

STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON is an emerging poet, performance artist, and arts advocate based in Chicago.  She is a founding member of the West Side School for the Desperate radical arts collective.  As an organizer and activist, she has been a youth mentor for the Chicago Public Schools since 2011, and is currently a regional coordinator for Louder Than A Bomb; previously, she was involved in SlutWalk Chicago as the guerilla arts coordinator.  Her poetry has most recently been published in elimae, Yes Poetry Magazine, and The Legendary, among others.  Currently one of the highest ranked slam poets in Chicago, she competed in the National Poetry Slam in 2012, and is the Mental Graffiti representative for the Women of the World Poetry Slam in 2013.  She holds a Bachelors of Arts in Poetry from Columbia College Chicago.


West Side School for the Desperate

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