Samantha Hill awaits your input. And awaits.
Then awaits some more.
"I think people know I'm here," she said on a recent afternoon, not sounding all that certain.
She laughed nervously.
The Hyde Park Art Center was quiet. Hill, who is 39 and grew up in Philadelphia ("but in the bourgeois parts"), is the center's artist-in-residence, but much of her art is reliant on a degree of audience participation — on unexpected interactions between her and whoever stumbles across her unusual practice. Many weekdays and every Saturday through May, she can be found in her window seat at the center, watching over Cornell Avenue. She's the woman who looks like a graduate student, lost in thought.
Waiting for you to talk to her.
A few feet away is a note. It explains that she, artist Samantha Hill, will be present from time to time, and her first solo show, "Topographical Depictions of the Bronzeville Renaissance," hangs on an adjacent wall.
"But I realize now that people don't read that note," she said, "and have no idea what this is or who I am."
What this is: "Topographical Depictions," which opened in February and runs through May 18, is several pieces of clothesline strung along the considerable length of wall on the center's second-floor gallery. On those frayed clotheslines Hill has hung photos from the Bronzeville Historical Society: images of African-American families that date to the 1940s, yellowing portraits from the 1970s of slick-looking hipsters nursing cigarillos. Recordings of Hill interviewing Bronzeville residents play over gallery speakers.
And across from the clotheslines, there's a second note, a gentle urging: Hill would like you to participate in her show, to bring your photographs to the exhibit and clip them to these clotheslines, thereby extending her archival work in unplanned directions, creating dialogues among the pictures, the contributors and the artist herself. She wants you to consider the ways in which Chicago's historic "Black Metropolis" — the former hub of black culture in the Midwest (and the onetime home of Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks) — has transformed over the past century, rising, declining and rising once again.
Or … just leave your thoughts on a Post-it.
That's by far the most popular option. Two months into the show, yellow notes from attendees litter the gallery wall: recollections of Bronzeville's past, associative thoughts ("this person reminds me of my first boyfriend"), shot-in-the-dark guesses of the identities of the people in the unlabeled photographs.
But after two months, only a handful of personal photos have been left.
"Samantha's art is very dependent on strangers," said Neysa Page-Lieberman, director of the department of exhibitions at Columbia College and co-curator of "RISK: Empathy, Art and Social Practice," the current group show at Columbia's Glass Curtain Gallery, of which "Topographical Depictions" is a satellite exhibition. "So much of what she does is reliant on people showing up and knowing to bring her things. Yet she doesn't know them. Yet she wants them to bring her their private objects and personal thoughts, then let her share them. Sometimes they do! But there's a risk. That's how she fits our show: People don't always play along."
Or notice her.
Hill told me that, as a young student artist at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, one of her formative works was a sculpture reflecting on her childhood.
"So, in one corner of the gallery, there was my childhood vanity, on a chair was my doll of a duck with an Afro, and these bookshelves that held my books," she said. "And on another wall, a row of hair sculptures. Picture a hunting lodge and mounted dead animal heads, but hairdos instead.
"It was meant to get you to think about what hair is to an African-American girl. There was my ponytail, my straight tail, my Afro. Anyway, I found that I liked hanging out in the gallery and watching the reactions. People would pet my Afros! Super disturbing! But so interesting, because it broke from gallery aesthetics and made the work more personal. One day there was a tour group and a teenager picked up one my books and knocked over the whole sculpture. All the books fell. The curator told me a do-not-touch sign would go up. But I found that disturbing: Putting books in a gallery and expecting people not to touch them? I had a hard time at first getting my ideas to coalesce, but there's definitely some evolution in here."
In 2008, when Hill moved to Chicago to study sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she would show faculty and students what she had done, "and they would say to me, 'No, you're doing performance!' And I never thought of it that way. I thought to an extent I was just hanging out in sculptures."
Indeed, after revisiting her childhood bedroom, another of her Philadelphia sculptures involved re-creating her grandmother's living room: "I did it in the gallery window. I used the actual stuff from her house. And for six weeks, I would hang out in it, maybe three days a week for at least four hours a day. I would sleep, do my homework. I found I had to purposely shift, or people would think I was a mannequin. A soundtrack of James Brown, Chaka Khan, played over speakers inside and outside the window. Occasionally you would hear stories from my father, a teacher, about growing up in North Philadelphia. You would walk by the window and hear stories, or music. People would stop. Once, a woman in a formal business suit heard the music and started lightly dancing, looked up, saw me and was startled! So I started dancing with her on the other side of the window. Some people would come in the room. I realized I could talk to them about their stories."
If you see Hill hanging out at the Hyde Park Art Center, you will probably notice that she is sitting in something of a parody of an office. The furniture — desk, sideboard, old lamp, overstuffed chair, a mundane decorative wall painting (all borrowed from the Bronzeville Historical Society) — is both simultaneously unremarkable and suspiciously over-appointed for a public space. The scene almost looks as though someone played a prank on Hill and moved her office into the hallway. Said Allison Peters Quinn, director of exhibitions and residency programs at the art center: "We gave Samantha an office, but she prefers to sit out there most of the time, which does lend a kind of strange and funny aspect to Samantha's art — in a way, Samantha's become performative, even though she is not exactly performing."
That's not a bad way of explaining Hill's art, which falls into the tricky, at times abstract genre called social practice, often intended to foster meaningful personal connections between artists and everyday people and effect real change. So, whereas another artist might use paints or stone, Hill uses archival materials, oral histories and herself. And yet, because social practice doesn't often look like any popular idea of art, it comes with an inherent chance of being ignored, overlooked, taken for granted — a central theme of "RISK."
"If she takes off, I think it'll be because Samantha speaks to a couple of things going on in the art world now," said Faheem Majeed, associate director of the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Art & Art History and an artist who has collaborated frequently with Hill. "Audiences seem to have grown dissatisfied with people making things for the sake of making things. They would rather connect. She does that through oral histories, by taking (old-timey) tintype photographs of contemporary people. At the same time, she is creating pleasing moments. It's not a byproduct of a social practice angle — it's wanting a degree of both."
A few years ago, when he was executive director of the South Side Community Art Center, Majeed asked Hill to contribute a piece for an exhibit about the decline of the South Side Community Art Center itself. She asked to create an installation in the basement, which was dank, cluttered and unused.
"Older board members? One unwritten rule there was 'Always put your best foot forward,' and her thing didn't go over well," he said. "But there were all these stories about people who worked and lived down there, stories passed down but never documented. So she did it. She loaded the place with the voices from oral histories and sounds of decay that literally came through the cracks. Her point, using the space, incorporating its history, was that a neglected space could be renovated, but its loss would be catastrophic. It was amazing."
A kind of sculpture — and, like many of her "sculptures," more of an art-directed space than a hunk of material whittled into shape. Same goes for her "Gift Project" in 2011. Patric McCoy, a Hyde Park art collector, gave Hill more than 1,500 portraits of black men taken between 1980 and 1992 and a small set of instructions: She could show the pictures to anyone, but only in a dark room. And she must set up discussions about the 1980s and also play jazz in the background. Hill projected the photos on a 6-foot screen at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and put a DJ (spinning jazz) in the pulpit.
Which led her to collect more than 3,000 photos of African-American families from the late 19th century to 2012. She calls this "The Kinship Project," and its first iteration, shown at the McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, N.C., was chronological, also hung from clotheslines and also offered viewers a choice of contributing photographs or leaving Post-it commentary (again, most chose the latter).
The next version of the project, which opened in late 2012, focused on Chicago and the Great Migration of African-Americans to Northern cities. Again she brought clotheslines, and again she asked for photographic contributions. "No one donated anything at all this time," she recalled. But the installation itself was remarkable: Hill strung photos inside a wooden shack/art space that Majeed built on the roof of a building at 55th Street and Woodlawn Avenue.
"I started seeing the clotheslines as kind of musical scores, with notes and staffs," she said. "When it rained, water dripped inside, and I would worry about those old photos, but the photos were fine, and when kerosene lamps were lit, it would activate a smell of the cedar in the walls." (A version of the installation, inside a reconstructed shack from Majeed, can be seen now at Glass Curtain.)
"Topographical Depictions" is meant as something of an addendum, a post-migration piece. But Hill, who is on the arts faculty at Chicago State University and teaches at the nonprofit Urban Gateways arts center, said she intends to expand and adapt the archival photos/clothesline exhibits to other regions and cities.
In the meantime, in Hyde Park, she awaits your conversation:
"I'm here a lot, so if you see a small black woman with an Afro, please, just say, 'Hey there, Samantha.'"
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