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Gallery Spotlight: Little Black Pearl

Gallery Spotlights are posts about randomly selected* art venues in Chicago

Anna Schier

Born in a Basement:

From the moment of its birth in the basement of an abandoned building, Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center has enthusiastically enriched the Kenwood/Oakland community. 10 years later, the south side youth center continues to thrive and grow under the steady hand of founder and Executive Director, Monica Haslip .

Haslip’s passion for her work is clear. “I always wanted to create an avenue to introduce African American youth in particular to the arts as a potential career path,” she states. “I met a number of kids that lived in the neighborhood and I talked to them about art and many of them had some really short visions for what was possible. Creating an environment where kids who didn’t normally have access to art could have a place where they did have access had the potential of changing their lives and giving them more hope and possibility.”

What began a decade ago has grown tremendously. The 40,000 square foot space, formerly a liquor store and Little Black Pearl’s residence of three years, is home to an astounding array of facilities, including a metal studio, wood studio, computer lab, mosaic studio and one of only two glass blowing studios in Chicago. It is the perfect place to discover art’s power to educate and inspire.

From Artisans to Entrepreneurs:

Haslip teaches her students that creativity need not be synonymous with frivolity. By incorporating business skills as a critical element of its art program, Little Black Pearl has crafted a successful marriage of artistry and practicality.

“They learn about the importance of pricing, they learn about the market that they are selling to, they learn about quality control,” Haslip explains.

The students at Little Black Pearl, ranging from elementary-aged to late teens, don’t simply learn these concepts in theory, either. They implement them, crafting pieces commissioned by a wide range of clients, including the University of Chicago, the Quad Communities Development Corporation and the Illinois Department of Transportation, as well as small businesses, community members and collectors.

Haslip notes, “They [the students] have to really understand the importance of being efficient and dealing with the client’s interests and needs. When they move forward either to college or to start businesses or in the workforce, they already know some of the basic business principles that are required to be successful.”

While students are busy constructing pieces to be sold in the art center’s store or for clients, participants in Little Black Pearl’s Workforce Development Program gain valuable professional skills and job experience.

The program, aimed at young adults aged 19 to 35, offers jobs and internships in everything from studio work to administration. After 6 months in the program, interns are either shifted to full time positions at Little Black Pearl or the art center tries to find them another placement, providing professional opportunities for many young community members.

Creating Art, Creating Community:

Little Black Pearl provides local youth with the opportunity to learn how to succeed in the art industry. But Haslip’s programs also offer students something else: a voice.

“Some of the stuff now that we’re going through in the city, violence and youth violence — a lot of our kids really didn’t feel like they had a voice in these issues,” explains Haslip. “Because those things are impacting our community, we really are using art as a vehicle for our youth to have a voice.”

Little Black Pearl’s Summer Program, in particular, encourages participants to address social issues through painting, poetry, dance and theater. This summer’s theme, Collateral Damage: Creating Legacies of Boundless Peace, is part of an ongoing year round project at Little Black Pearl.

The highlight of Little Black Pearl’s summer of social awareness will take place on August 21st. The art center will host Pearl Fest , an event that will include health screenings, local artists and musicians. Haslip explains that the festival “is our way of bringing the resources that we’ve developed over the year through our relationships with other partners back to the community.”

Little Black Pearl’s community outreach doesn’t end with the summer. Come September, the center continues to give back with an in-school program. Primarily catering to alternative schools, the art center educates students while visually improving their schools.

“We’ll design workshops so students can participate in producing murals and other public installations for the school,” says Haslip.

Little Black Pearl refuses to be limited to educating only the students enrolled in its programs. Rather, the instructors and administrators reach out to the surrounding neighborhood, actively engaging with south side residents, offering programs catering to seniors and adults, artisan residency, academic tutoring, a gallery, and a cafe with free wifi.

image from http://soulofamerica.com

Says Haslip, “We use art as an avenue to get youth and adults engaged in much broader issues. One of the things that makes this organization unique is that we really do believe that art has a place in community development and economic development. Hopefully in the future we’ll continue to be at the table where those discussions are taking place, making sure that art is being considered a very important aspect of community.”

Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center is located at 1060 East 47th Street. It is open from 10 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday. Pearl Fest will take place in Mandrake Park on August 21st from 10 am to 10 pm. Admission is free.

*Gallery spotlights are chosen based on a lottery, which we document by videotape, in order to be transparent and truly random. 10 were chosen out of a pool of 350.