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Artist Profile: Justus Roe

Interview by Terry Carlton for Gozamos.

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” -Picasso

You may or may not have seen this quote accompanying a picture of a little kid dressed as a lion for Halloween in La Villita. If you’re a loyal facebook, or as Justus puts it later facespace and phazebook friend, you have. If not, Justus Roe shows you, the reader, how the aspiring artist in all of us remains alive.

And as this interview will obviously indicate, Justus Roe’s knowledge is extensive. He cares more about Chicago than you do, than most do. He’s an idea man, thriving on enthusiasm and introducing a never-before-seen-12-point plan to save education that includes, yes, a ban on Flamin’ Hots. Now that’s ambition!

Gather ‘round children and take notes, as this will be on the final…

Terry Carlton (TC) What have you been up to lately? Tell me about the mobile truck gallery Hotbox.

Justus Roe (JR): I’ve been extra busy juggling many things at once! I have been working on a few painting/installation commissions, painting the Neo entrance wall, remodeling my future home, mixing a record of Haitian rappers recorded by my good friend and bandmate Travis Yarak, mixing and mastering the latest Perseus Noble and Royce records, finishing up some beats for a future Galapagos4 compilation, recording new songs for a future solo record with my ace R&B/Prog Rock vocalist David “Wild Card” McDonnel from the band Michael Columbia/Herculanium, working on a couple of the largest 100 sq ft canvas paintings I’ve ever done for a future exhibition in January, and in general spending way too much time on phazebook…

Hotbox is basically a bread delivery truck that has been transformed into a mobile art gallery. To quote the Hotbox team it is “An unconventional space for unconventional art.” They let artists take over the inside and outside of the truck to exhibit their work to the public.  It’s a fantastic way to connect artists to the public. With the mobile element in the equation, the work has a greater chance of reaching a broader audience.

TC: You were in Michigan City lately, too, weren’t you? How was that and what did you get into over there?

JR: Well, since working on a commission for the tech startup hub 1871 in the Merchandise Mart, I’ve been riding the coattails of two great artists Chris Silva and Ruben Aguirre.  They have been inspirational and motivating forces in my journey back into creating large-scale artwork. After completing the 1871 commission with some regained confidence I felt the desire to keep working on larger paintings. Professor Silva introduced me to the very gracious Chirs Grohs who runs Walnut Ink Projects gallery in downtown Michigan City. He has been coordinating some public art efforts, one of which is the Warren outdoor projects, panel walls set up along the entrance of a large vacant building running through the middle of downtown Michigan City, which is in the process of being turned into affordable artist studio spaces. I went out on one of the city’s art opening nights and painted in front of a live and very friendly and encouraging audience of local residents. I’m looking forward to maybe getting back out there to do some touch ups to the piece in daylight before it gets too cold.

TC: You are such a well-rounded, versatile artist. Do you have a favorite medium in which you work?

JR: My gut unfortunately is definitely well rounded, but you are way too kind. I like to jump back and forth from mediums/medias. I love delving into the recording process and obsessively working and often overworking a song from the playing, editing, mixing, mastering etc, then jumping into a mural or painting with the same intensity.

Although I feel like I can never quite master any of the medias, I never get bored of the process and it keeps me motivated. But if I’m choosing favorites, for the visual it would be large scale painting, and for time based media would be reel to reel recording.

TC: Tell us a little bit about what goes on at Gallery 37 and how it operates?

JR: Although I no longer work for G37, it was a pivotal part of my life. I was lucky enough during high school in the early 1990s to work for the Gallery 37 summer program which was the art tents on the once vacant Block 37 between Dearborn and State + Randolph and Washington.  It was an art utopia of kids from all over the city commuting to downtown to work on art for an hourly wage. Thanks to the vision of Lois Weisberg and Maggie Daley this program allowed kids from every corner of the city to meet and take part in art making. From the success of the summer program, the city, CPS and City Colleges got together to continue a version of the program during the school year, which eventually became the Advanced Arts Education Program. This program has CPS high school students taking their academic classes in the morning, then commuting downtown to the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts to take a 2 credit hour Advanced Placement or Honors art class. After college, I started working as an operations assistant for the Gallery 37 summer program, which led to an ever-evolving position for the Advanced Arts Education Program. Somehow I managed to survive there for ten years in an often hyper political, constantly evolving work environment. Through our recruitment efforts I was able to see a vast amount of high schools and neighborhoods throughout the city. I was able to work with hundreds of the most interesting and talented young artists in Chicago and some of the most accomplished teaching artists and CPS art instructors in the city.
The program has had great success with developing students’ talent in addition to a high percentage of graduation and college attendance…not to mention millions in scholarship awards. Unfortunately I was unceremoniously laid off in 2010, but the program continues and of course my break from G37 has opened up some incredible art opportunities including the Hotbox, Neo, 1871, the future Rogers Park Underpass Project, and the Prudential entrance.

TC: How did the CPS strike affect you this summer/early fall? What, if any, were the repercussions of the strike in your opinion?

JR: It was a brief hiccup for the school I am at. We were ironically right in the middle of the new performance testing which added to the challenge. It did definitely strengthen the unity amongst teachers.

The repercussions are that Mr. Emanuel is not winning the hearts and minds of teachers, police, fire and in general any city workers that are left. If anything the strike has helped the resolve of the current generation of teachers. It has presented a clear picture of the plan to corporatise education through people outside of the city who really have no vested interest in or understanding of Chicago.

In general, the strike has perpetuated the us vs. them crap mentality and animosity between schools and the board, teachers vs. administration, which is truly counterproductive to educating Chicago’s youth. Also, the advertising campaign from outside edu/business/lobbying groups that have been running lately are really degrading and hurtful to teachers. I am all for holding people accountable, and teachers can handle a powder keg of pressure, but if you really wanted to improve teacher performance and subsequently student performance, maybe running ads on radio and TV that put them down and make them out to be the bad guy isn’t the smoothest plan.  Seriously, there should be weeks where students from the South, East and West Sides should trade schools with the North Side/North Shore schools. . . .

Mitt’s got a 5 point plan. Here is my 12 point plan:

1. Elected school board.
2. All charters/contract schools must be non-for profit and hire at least 50% certified union teachers.
3. Union teachers must be part of the elected board.
4. All central office position salaries must be capped below 6 figures.
5. All central office positions must be held by Chicago residents who have lived in the city for at least five years and again at least if not more than half of those positions must be held by people who were former union member teachers or with backgrounds extensive in actual education/non for profit management (not just Ivy League grads using this as a stepping stone or resume piece) – and not corporate/business backgrounds – it’s education, not a f’ing corporation.
6. Give neighborhood schools the same power, resources and options as the charters/contract schools.
7. Setup state of the art schools that are flooded with effective counselors, therapists, coaches, and education specialists for students with the most severe behavioral, social and learning issues.
8. Put Terry Mazany back in the mix, because he was excellent in his brief stint as interim CEO, and I think only took a $1 dollar salary. Now that’s class.
9.  Replicate the Gallery 37 program beyond art, throughout the loop and get students off their blocks and out of their neighborhoods, to actually see the entire city and experience a diverse learning environment, not the current hyper segregated system.
10. More sports, more art, more hands on science, more technology tools, constant reading + math and give every kid a laptop, tablet and the option for families to purchase computers and internet access at discounted prices. . . . .
11. A real ban on Flamin’ Hots, energy drinks and pop in general.
12. Bulk buying power at the district level for actually healthy and nutritious foods, and up to date powerful computers and tech equipment.

TC: What do you feel is the most important thing for young, aspiring artists to keep in mind when considering life as an artist?

JR: Well just like in 1992 when I styled my fashion sense off of Marky Mark, I’ve stuck with it…. Even though my wife thinks I’m in my mid-thirties I still see myself as a young aspiring artist…. but if you are ready for me to drop some life lessons, I would say stick to your guns and skip trying to adjust to whatever art world idea is hot at the moment…. p.s. hopefully street art will disappear. To quote my good buddy JASH DC5 D30, “You do you!” and keep a good day gig to pay the bills.

TC: I wish when I was in grade school we had bad ass murals on the walls from local legends. How did the project at Doolittle Elementary come to be?

JR: Well, I was pretty green when I started working there, and I had been severely spoiled working at Gallery 37 which was an immaculate state of the art building with great art installations in almost every corner, with pieces by Miriam Socoloff, Jourdon Gullet, and Phil Schuster just to name a few. But I am a firm believer in art and design setting the mood for the environment.  After the first couple weeks walking into Doolittle the extremely toxic wall colors really started to get to me and I started to hatch a fantasy plan to just turn the entire school into a graffiti art museum. Luckily the very forward-thinking principal supported the idea. I put the word out to some local painters and sprayers who I am a big fan of and ended up collaborating with the style master Ruben Aguirre on several walls in the school. We spent about five days painting staircases and corridors, which drastically altered at least the immediate entrance vibe for the school, and I think, added a bit of life and updated energy to the school.

TC: What are you up to for Chicago Artists’ Month? Anything you are particularly excited about this month?

JR: Always excited to see the shows at Believe Inn gallery, but wait, one fucking month for Chicago artists? One super short month for Black history? One day for mothers day? One day for Valentines day? One month for the shamrock shake? F all that! every month is artist month in Chicago!

Just to name a few: Project Onward – Here comes the neighborhood , Believe Inn – Variation Firecat Projects – James JankowiakLinda Warren Gallery , Gala Gallery Hebru Brantleyand the current cup campaign by Trane & Shaggy

TC: Are you doing Neo again this year?

JR: Yes!!! Before I hopefully dive into parenthood, and to preempt any future mid-life crisis, I’m going to hardcore relive the early 2000s and repaint part of the alley entrance to the oldest club in Chicago and truly the best dancing in town, club Neo! In my youth I recalled people lining up around the block waiting to get into Neo, and the strange spray paint patterns running down the alley. My only option for the club experience was Medusas, but when I came of age, Neo definitely filled the void left from Medusas closing.

In 1999 I tracked down the manager and convinced him to let me paint the entire alley. Using exclusively house paint and a very small brush, I spent a solid eight years working on the mural. While my other spray-painting friends were doing pieces on many different walls, I got to concentrate my efforts into a single space. It was tons of fun and a great place to experiment.  Also, the managers were kind enough to perpetually put me on the guest list, in addition to being able to bring in several post-wedding parties of dear friends. And of course it’s a great place to run into Mr. Tevo Howard. Got to give a shout out to Rude One who hooked me up this time with the new music director of Neo, Brian Sarpalius, who gave me the go ahead this time. Hopefully I can sneak in for some post Thanksgiving dancing this year.

TC: Do you have a favorite solo show that you’ve done? Or is that like picking your favorite son/daughter?

JR: My good friend Andre Corbin used to manage Funky Buddah Lounge, and he let me put up my first real painting show in the VIP room. We made it quite a fancy affair and got a huge crowd to come through, pre-facespace of course . . .  that one was pretty remarkable…. also a really great one at In-Fine Spirits up in Andersonville, when I was not feeling great about my work… both gave me a lot of love to keep it going.

TC: Speaking of which, how do you maintain balance with so much going on in life?

JR: Lattes and plenty of rejuvenating cuddling time on the couch with my wife and cat Lil Wayne, as well as hanging with the fam.  Also I’ve had some friends who have had very untimely deaths, most recently the great Reggie “ReDe” Destin, and their passing has given me an almost unhealthy sense of urgency for life and the motivation to pursue my art.

TC: If you could change one thing about the Chicago art scene, what would it be?
JR: More love for the local townies, more people like and to connect the art supporters/consumers to the artists.

TC: And on the flip side, what’s the best thing about being an artist in Chicago?

JR: Chicago is never short on inspiration past, present or future. There is a constant flow of interesting artists and exhibitions in addition to the support from the community of artists working in the city. Also the opportunities to exhibit work, whether it’s established spaces or spots transformed into gallery spaces or the side of a building, if you will it, it can be done.

TC: Where is the best place for our readers to keep up with your work?

JR: Yikes again…. well for the visual
for the audio:
and for real works in progress:


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