Imagine it’s a Friday evening at the Highland Park Metra station. The platform to catch the train into Chicago is full of people, all of them headed into the city for a weekend of activities: museums, concerts, film screenings. Across the tracks, the platform on the opposite side is deserted until a North-bound train pulls in, and a crowd of Chicagoans steps off. This is the vision of the Art Center Highland Park’s Executive Director, James Lynch, an idea he calls “the reverse cultural commute.” Instead of art enthusiasts leaving Highland Park to take in the culture of the city, his goal is that people from the city come to us to see exhibitions, hear music, and experience one-of-a-kind events and programs.
An important first step in realizing the vision of the reverse cultural commute is bringing in artists who represent the best of Chicago-area talent to Highland Park. One such artist is designer and educator Norman Teague.
“I only have my story to tell.”
An artist, designer, and educator from Chicago, Teague knew early in his life that he had “a passion for drawing, but didn’t know which way to direct it.” Pursuing technical drawing, he enrolled at Harold Washington College, where he studied architecture. Though not the final destination on his career journey, Teague says that working in architecture for twelve years let him know that he could use his “drawing skills to do bigger things.” Continuing his education in interior architecture at Columbia College Chicago, he discovered the college’s woodshop: “I fell in love with this idea of sketching things out and then bringing those things to fruition through working with my hands.”
It was during this time of inspiration that Teague opened his first studio. “It was rough, down and dirty, but I had this level of independence where I could go in the shop twenty-four hours a day and work on different ideas I might have.” Word spread about his studio and Teague began to get commissions for projects from businesses and individuals from around Chicago. Deciding he wanted to return to school again, he earned his MFA in Designed Objects from the School of the Art Institute Chicago.
With SAIC as a platform to help his work gain exposure, Teague began to ponder what kind of impact his work could be making on the world: “I’m a born and raised Chicagoan who has seen design and the lack of in his own neighborhood, yet fortunate enough that I traveled a lot and I saw just what a fruitful neighborhood looked like, what design had to do with that and really what kind of impact I could be making. That really woke me up, gave me the opportunity to think more directly about what I wanted to say with this work. I wanted to voice inequities through my work, tell these stories through creating objects that really express a narrative that I felt was less heard. For years I was like, ‘Maybe the rest of the world just don’t give a fuck about us. Maybe that’s just the way it is and I’ve just gotta shut that up and be okay with it.’ But I never was okay with it and I’ve pushed since then to create work that talks about where I’m from, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. And really to not beat anyone upside the head, but to set an example of a person of color doing positive things, trying to tell stories that are lesser told. I’ve been doing whatever I can to curate shows and make work that I’m happy with. I can’t say that I’m looking to make work that makes anyone else happy, I only have my story to tell and my hope is that there are other people who find relevance in that and maybe some empowerment in that.”
For Teague, inspiration comes from both home and abroad, as evidenced in his celebrated Sinmi Stool. Constructed from bent plywood and birch laminations, the stool’s name is derived from the Yoruba word meaning “to relax.” Aptly titled, Teague’s work invites viewers to lean back and chill. “I really take pride in stimulating interest through form,” Teague says, “particularly in my Sinmi Stool which has this motion and movability to it.” The stool speaks to an action-oriented aesthetic, one rooted in the inclination to rest against the hood of a car or a kitchen counter. The stool doesn’t just occupy space, it creates it through movement, generating a feeling of playful approachability in those seeing or perching upon it.
“Compassion, Empathy, and Affirmation.”
As an artist who always has his eye on community-building, Teague frequently works with other artists and organizations. Teague says that “compassion, empathy, and affirmation” are the key elements of a successful collaboration: “I think that if you bring those things to the table and that there’s a great deal of listening happening, people are excited and fired up about all the possibilities. I feel like this is a sheer collaboration with Highland Park, how does an outside voice talk to Highland Park, which has a Black population of less than 2%? That’s why the programmatic arm [of The Art Center] is really important, it gives me and that community a little bit of face-to-face time. I think that is where conversations start to happen and barriers are broken.”
If you’re interested in becoming part of this conversation, Norman Teague will display his work at The Art Center Highland Park in August 2022.