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Inside ChiArts: Chicago Artists in the Making – Harlan Ballogg

Last spring, I attended the Senior Visual Arts Exhibit featuring projects by the first graduating class of The Chicago High School for the Arts. ChiArts, as the school is known, opened in 2009 and is the first public arts high school to serve the Chicago area, with the mission of diversifying the city’s landscape of professional artists. Students from all neighborhoods with a wide range of previous training are encouraged to audition for dance, theatre, musical theatre, music, and visual arts conservatories. A creative writing conservatory is set to open in the fall of 2014.

I teach in the theatre department and wanted to share one of many thought-provoking projects from the inaugural class of 2013. Below is my interview with Harlan Ballogg, who exhibited portraits of homeless men in Chicago. He currently studies illustration at The School of Visual Arts in New York.

Ginger O’Donnell (GO): What inspired this project?

Harlan BalIogg (HB): It was mainly because of Ray. He was this mysterious, semi-homeless figure from my childhood. He was always standing on the end of my street, mumbling to himself. I always saw him but never talked to him. When I was older, probably a junior in high school, it finally occurred to me that I should. We kept talking from then on. I enjoyed his character. It made me wonder why I’d waited so long to approach someone I was so familiar seeing, and why I didn’t talk to the other homeless people I was used to seeing.

Harlan Ballogg, Who Knows, 2013. Oil on canvas. (Image courtesy of the artist)

GO: So you wanted to acknowledge people you were used to seeing but didn’t interact with much.

HB: Yes, and I was inspired by the artists Marc Bamuthi and Theaster Gates. For a little over a year, I was involved in this youth art group at the Museum of Contemporary Art. We would meet every Saturday to discuss art related subjects, work with people at the museum and organize events. It was a melting pot of artistic endeavors. On one of those Saturdays, I had the privilege of meeting them. They were doing a community-based project near Hyde Park, renovating abandoned buildings to create spaces for the community. The whole project was very creative. For example, one of the buildings was going to have this beautiful, 100-something-year-old door installed in the main entrance. They kept using the phrase “art is bigger than art.

GO: What did that phrase mean to you?

HB: At the time, I didn’t really understand it, but it began to mean that art isn’t bound to a physical piece, like a painting on a canvas. It is something you should incorporate into your daily routine, something you can live out. This made me want to incorporate art even more into my everyday life, especially through observation. I realized that homeless people are the abandoned buildings of Chicago: people whom the general public has forgotten, people who might look roughed up, but could be brand new. Most importantly, people who have stories wrapped up inside them.

GO: How did you begin the process of collecting their stories?

HB: I walked through neighborhoods in Chicago—Pilsen, Irving Park, Bucktown and Bronzeville—with a digital audio recorder and recorded conversations with people who are considered homeless. I talked to them about their general life: how they ended up homeless, what they did before, what makes them happy, what makes them sad, family, any other things they wanted to say. I never structured it like an interview, rather I let it flow more like a natural conversation. I didn’t want to give off the sense that it’s one and done, like I was just going to interview them and never see them again. Most of these people are my friends, and I saw them on a regular basis. I took a few photographs of each person in front of a place that suited them. I used these photographs for representational paintings.

GO: What were some of the highlights of your conversations?

I think talking with Ray was most memorable, mainly because he was someone I had always seen growing up. He was a lonely person, just standing around by himself all day, so I think his loneliness made him come off crazier than he was. We would talk for awhile, and he would start to tell me about his past. He used to design and screen print movie posters, so it turned out I was making a piece of art about an artist and I didn’t even know it.

Harlan Ballogg, Steve, 2013. Oil on canvas. (Image courtesy of the artist).

GO: From a technical standpoint, how did you convey their stories and character?

HB: I used color to express the overall mood I felt from the person. For example, I painted Coco bright green because he was a bright person. He gave off a peaceful, happy feeling which made me see him as a green man.

GO: Why oil painting?

HB: Oil painting is very maneuverable. It’s easy to gradate and get a smooth, realistic transition between colors. It also has the most realistic quality to me — the colors and the depth you can get with oil is unlike acrylic or watercolor.

GO: I also noticed that the paintings zoom in on the subjects’ facial expressions.

HB: I think the closeness makes the viewer feel like they have to look at the person, like they are being confronted with a real human whom they might otherwise ignore. They are confronted with a situation they have to react to. It also helps the viewer really see their emotions. Take the painting of Steve, for example—you look into his eyes and see the redness and tiredness, which helps create some kind of human connection.

GO: You painted many of the portraits directly onto an object that connects to the person’s story. What is the story behind these objects?

HB: The dustpan painting was from a few conversations I had with Stevie. He had a gig at the Shell gas station in my neighborhood where he would clean up people’s cars and sweep up outside the station. He always carried a broom and a dustpan—even when I photographed him, he held his broom with both hands.

Harlan Ballogg, Coco, 2013. Oil on hubcap. (Image courtesy of the artist).

The saw was from my conversation with Joe. He was a crafty person overall, a woodworker. I also have a weird connection with old saw paintings. My grandma lives in Wisconsin and she has these saws with rural country scenes painted on them, a popular folk art thing. I have always wanted to do a more modern take on that. Instead of the beautiful, rural, quiet, landscape painted on a saw, I wanted a loud, urban scene with a homeless man.

The hubcap piece was from a conversation with Coco. He had a son about my age who lived with him on the streets. When we talked, they were both trying to raise enough money to hitchhike to Cincinnati. A couple weeks after we talked, I never saw him or his son again, so I assumed that they began making their way. Hubcaps and hitchhikers are kind of similar—they are both found off to the side of the road, just kind of rolling along. They were on a path but they fell off at one point.

GO:Did you show any of the men their finished portrait?

HB: I only got to show Shawn his finished piece. I ran into him at a festival shortly after I had finished the painting. I called out his name and he slowly recognized me. I reminded him of the interview and showed him the painting. We pounded fists and went our separate ways. He seemed to like the painting but didn’t say a whole lot. He was generally a quiet person.

Harlan Ballogg, Dual Persons, 2013. Oil on saw. (Image courtesy of the artist).

GO: To your knowledge, did this project have any concrete effect on the people you painted?

HB:It’s hard to say. If anything, I hope that they felt understood for once, that finally someone who is not homeless acknowledged them beyond the typical, “Here’s a dollar that I’ll put in your cup and walk away.”Overall I think being homeless can dehumanize a person, so I hope that I helped reverse some of that dehumanization.

GO: Are you looking to revise, expand, or continue this project in any way?

HB: I’m not sure. The homeless idea will probably become a focus again. For now, I still talk to homeless people. I just haven’trecorded any conversations or painted any more portraits.

GO:Do you think this project lived up to the ideal of “art that is bigger than art”?

HB:To me, yes, in that I began practicing art outside of painting in my studio. I realized that art is something you should be doing all the time, whether it’s gathering sources and inspiration, or observing, or just listening to someone. You can find artistic qualities in everything, which is why it’s hard to define what art is.

GO: How do you plan to incorporate that philosophy into future projects?

HB: I want to remember that the art doesn’t just come from sitting down and creating, it comes from interactions and observations.

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