By Bridget Esangga
Everyone has a story to tell: residents of a notorious mental hospital, physically and mentally disabled people, middle-school gang members on the South Side of Chicago. Jim Duignan, who earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts degrees from the University of Illinois Chicago and who teaches at DePaul University, is dedicated to collaborating with communities such as these to tell their stories through the Stockyard Institute, the name he has given to his 25-year art practice.
The Stockyard Institute finds spaces in Chicago neighborhoods where artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, poets, broadcasters, activists, and educators work with teens in projects and programs that enable youth to develop, exchange, and disseminate stories and build structures to organize their ideas.
It began in summer 1995, Chicago’s hottest on record, when Duignan moved his art practice to the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Fresh out of graduate school, he went there not to teach but to create an art curriculum for a new school being developed to serve students who had dropped out of area schools. Some of the students were not interested in sitting through their classes but were curious about what Duignan was up to.
“As I was thinking about the curriculum, I wanted to bring in all my artist friends to the neighborhood, so I found some abandoned school on Damen and 48th Streets, and the kids—they were a little more hardcore gang members—hung out with us,” said Duignan, who tested the curriculum as he built it. He estimates that 100 artists, including most of his MFA cohort from UIC, visited that summer.
For nearly two months, the students did not make any art; they talked. For maybe the first time in their lives, the students were with safe, thoughtful adults who happened to be artists, poets, performers, and musicians. One day, one of the youngsters said he was afraid of being shot in the back accidentally. When his students opened up like that, Duignan knew it was time to start a project. Together, in the sweltering heat, they began making an artwork called Gang-Proof Suit.
“If you can allow them to build work based on what was most pressing in their lives, someday they’d crack open,” Duignan said. “They’d keep coming back.”
Education related to students
Active participation in building new knowledge is a hallmark of Duignan’s teaching style and art practice. He found his own elementary and high school education disconnected from his life and interests, but he became fascinated with the teaching methods of Jane Addams used at Hull House, where his activist great-grandmother taught. Addams believed education should relate directly to students’ lives and bettering the community in which they live.
As a 17-year-old, Duignan first tested this method with a service project for the Boy Scouts. He chose to volunteer with friends at the Cook County Infirmary, known locally as the Dunning Insane Asylum. Duignan said he was curious about the lives of the boys living there.
Like many Chicagoans his age, he grew up hearing threats from his parents when he misbehaved that he would be sent to Dunning. He wanted to understand who these boys were and help them tell their stories. He’d spend the 30-minute wait before the institution’s staff would allow him to enter wondering what there was to hide.
Duignan said he was not there to interrupt or get in anyone’s way. He reacted to his sense of injustice with the quiet, patient activism of showing up, waiting, and being there with the patients.
“There are a lot of ways you can make something happen,” Duignan said. “It could be long-term, nonviolent, noninvasive ways of building meaningful relationships. That’s a kind of interruption. I always thought I could wait anybody out, anybody. Maybe I was an interrupter. Maybe my art practice is the right interruption at the right time.”
At age 17, Duignan already was making art and attending exhibitions. As he considered college, he knew he didn’t want to leave the city. After some time at City Colleges of Chicago, he began taking classes at UIC.
“I had such an incredible introduction to college at UIC,” Duignan said. “It was home for me.”
Throughout his undergraduate education, he would teach art to children and adults with physical and mental disabilities, wander the city, and do different odd jobs. When he completed his BFA, he entered the MFA program, again at UIC. He formed life-long friendships with his peers through late nights making art in each others’ studios and preparing for critiques that would include all of the MFA students, faculty, and well known gallery owners such as Rhona Hoffman and Donald Young.
“I think about UIC all the time,” Duignan said. “It was a really important time in my life in terms of thinking of myself as an artist. I draw on that more often than I think.”
Lately, Duignan has spent a lot of time thinking about his career’s trajectory as he prepares for Stockyard Institute: 25 Years of Art and Radical Pedagogy, a major museum retrospective of his work. Curated by Julie Rodrigues Widholm, the show kicks off at DePaul University’s Art Museum in March 2021 before traveling to other cities.
The show comes on the heels of Duignan receiving an endowed chair and professorship from DePaul, where he is an associate professor of visual arts and secondary education and chair of visual art education.
As an artist, Duignan has spent the past 25 years practicing the radical teaching method of listening to people who are not used to having their voices heard. “I’m not here to teach you anything,” he tells his students. “I’m here to let you share what you’re about.”
Ultimately, his goal is for his students to learn to value their own voice.
Formerly located on Damen Avenue, the institute is seeking a new space in the Back of the Yards area, Duignan said.
For more about the Stockyard Institute, log on to stockyardinstitute.org. To reach Duignan, email firstname.lastname@example.org.