Theaster's artistic practice grew from training as a potter, although by this time he already had a degree in urban planning. (An MA in religious studies happened along the way, too, and some time in Japan.) Nowadays he seems to shape opportunities for other artists as much as - indeed as - his own clay. His performances and installations always involve craftspeople in the neighborhood (often training new ones) as well as the various citizens of the art world, from beginning artists to carpenters to university folk to big-name philanthropists - if possible in ways that leave an enduring living for someone. It's quite poetic as idea but in practice dizzyingly, almost disturbingly entrepreneurial. And very successful. His star has risen decisively in the international art scene, and has enabled him to become a kind of salvage developer in Chicago's South Side, buying and transforming old buildings into spaces for artists. Many people in many places have participated in his projects, many, by design, spinning off into their own work. Of his team of seven planners he said he's a sort of organic corporation, one body.
We also got to see other spaces Theaster's revived, including the Arts Block, an "incubator" of new talent, and the vast disused Anheuser Busch brewery which will be his new studio. He also directed us to meet people he's worked closely with at older institutions engaged with community and art - Hull House, the Experimental Station, the Gray Center for Arts & Inquiry. But it still added up only to what one of my artist colleagues described as an "extended studio tour" - we got to see behind the scenes of his work, but not the work itself. Even the Dorchester Projects aren't just spaces but designed for particular kinds of life. And what life that must be: I've watched some of his performances on youtube with his group the Black Monks of Mississippi, and they're fantastic. Check out the song "I was born with clay in my veins," starting at 22:40 here. Commanding stuff.
And if you listen a bit you'll hear this old work song, perhaps inspired by the life of the slave artist known as "Dave the Potter," yield to something quite different: a religious chant, namu myo ho ren ge kyo. What's going on here? Nichiren Buddhist soul? I'm keen to find out. I was invited to participate in the weekend because religion is important in many ways to Theaster's work. His first words to us were about the importance of the "belief muscle," and we learned also that at a recent musical session he started "scatting in tongues." He understands his work with reused materials as more than reclamation - if not redemption, it is a kind of resurrection. And perhaps a little retribution, too: the above (seen from the side) is one of his works made of deaccessioned fire hose, meant to recall not the putting out of fires but the use of fire hoses use against protesters during the civil rights movement.
We all meet again in a month, back in New York. I think we're all trying to understand just how his practice has widened out to embrace music, exhibition, historical reclamation, curatorial interrogation and urban renewal. I'm wondering if something in the experience of Japanese pottery - especially the waiting for glaze to assume colors and shapes you don't plan (but which also couldn't happen without you) - continues to inform his collaborations. He uses the language of "heat" to describe what he's making. I'll have to ask about the Lotus Sutra, too!