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Art for social change in Oak Park 

By Helen Quinn-Pasin | October 27, 2020


Oak Park has long used art as a platform for social and political commentary. The Oak Park Art League is approaching its 100th anniversary and is wrapping up its latest exhibition, Art for Social Change: Dissent with proceeds donated to Black Lives Matter. Founded in 1921, the Oak Park Art League has always blended celebrating the arts with calls for social change. As early as the 1930s, it celebrated the gay community and multiculturalism


However, outside of the art league, Oak Park isn’t always a safe space for art for social change.  In July 2020, young local artists Cortlyn Kelly, Cullen Benson, and Franka Huanchicay designed and created a Black Lives Matter mural outside of Oak Park and River Forest High School on Scoville Avenue. It was defaced to read “all lives matter” in the middle of the night. Kelly, 22, said, “We knew it was going to happen. We just didn’t think it would be that soon.” After the vandalism, Kelly was worried that the movement would lose traction, but she continued to create diverse public murals. 


Kelly is currently getting her masters in Art History and Curatorial Studies at the University of Chicago and is motivated to change access for people of color to enjoy artistic spaces. “When a gallery opens, the museum and gallery audience is often white.” Kelly said. “Why aren’t people of color going to museums? It’s because they don’t feel like they belong there.”


The exhibition Art for Social Change: Dissent largely represents Black Lives Matter, with many pieces created by white artists who felt compelled to create art in support of the movement. Oak Park artist David Katzman, 52, created a portrait of George Floyd. “When I looked at the drawing it made me cry,” he said. “Which is pretty unusual that I’m so affected by my own work...The sadness of his suffering, the cruelty of it. It’s probably the most powerful drawing for me. It moved me because it brought to life the tragedy and sadness of his life.” 


Katzman has been involved in political activism for as long as he can remember. He is also inspired by quantum physics, which is represented in his style of continuous lines. “Matter and energy are one. If you look at the universe as a whole, everything is connected,” he said. “Socially, in our brains, we get caught up with our egos and selfish needs, and we misunderstand universal unity.” 


Samara Kaufman, 37, works in cyber-security by day and creates glass beadwork by night. As a white woman she wanted to show that although she doesn’t experience racism in her own life, she stands in solidarity and support with Black Lives Matter. Kaufman created I Can’t Breathe, BLM for this exhibit, and it was inspired by the intersection of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. “First we had people complaining about not being able to breathe with masks, then you can’t breathe with covid, and then the suffocation of George Floyd,” she said.

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Oak Park artist and former Board President and Chair of Fundraising for the Oak Park Art League from 2014-2018, Jennifer McNulty created BLM with mosaic tiles and photo prints. It was on display at the Art For Social Change: Dissent exhibition at the Oak Park League in October 2020. (Photo/Jennifer McNulty)

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Portrait of George Floyd created with markers on cardstock by David Katzman from the Art For Social Change: Dissent Exhibition at the Oak Park Art League, October 2020 (Photo/David Katzman)

I Can’t Breathe BLM by Samara Kaufman is done in glass beadwork and was displayed at Art for Social Change: Dissent at the Oak Park Art League, October 2020. (Photo/Samara Kaufman)

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