In a message recorded for the virtual 3Arts Awards celebration Oct. 19, muralist and teaching artist Dorian Sylvain described herself as a bit of a “bridge.” By working in the public sphere, she's trying not only to give back to the community, particularly the youth, but also to address the systemic problems that we have in our neighborhoods.
Sylvain — who was one of ten winners of the $30,000 award from local nonprofit 3Arts, and also singled out for the Community Award — went on to say that art doesn't erase the problems but it can give young people the voice, the power and the skills to help them feel like they belong to something bigger. Murals, she explained, are not so much about commission as about opportunities. To her, they're what community is about, a sort of life lesson that says “collective voices speak louder.”
Sylvain, who just turned 60, has been putting her principles into practice for more than four decades. A life-long South Sider who has lived in a Kenwood condo for the last decade, she's partnered with organizations such as the Hyde Park Art Center, the South Side Community Art Center, the Chicago Children’s Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the National Museum of Mexican Art, the DuSable Museum, the Chicago Park District, and the Chicago Public Art Group on projects that empower community and expose children to art-making.
Her bold, colorful murals adorn elementary and high schools, among them Caldwell, Horace Mann, and Webster elementary and Kenwood, Harper, Farragut, and Gage Park high. “Sunflower Road” at Dyett High School is typical. Created with a group of mural students and completed in 2017, it addresses the Great Migration and the influence of “Captain” Walter Dyett's music program on the South Side.
Sylvain has participated in solo and group exhibitions at the Reva and David Logan Art Center, the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Zhou B Art Center, the South Side Community Art Center, the Museum of Science and Industry, Women Made Gallery, the Hyde Park Art Center, the River Arts Center, the Illinois Art Gallery, and many others.
She was also among the artists commissioned by the Field Museum for a large mixed-media mosaic tile-and-mural sculpture entitled “Sankofa for the Earth” installed in 2016 on the Burnham Wildlife Corridor along the lakefront in Bronzeville.
A multiple-award winner, Sylvain attributes her passion for art and activism to her parents and to growing up on Chicago's South Side in the 1960s and '70s during the height of the Black Arts Movement and Black Power Movement. “My parents moved from Woodlawn to become one of the first Black families in South Shore in 1964, when I was 3,” she said. “My mother got me involved in art classes and took me to performances at all the Black theaters. I was always around artistic people, and she connected me to anything related to my interests."
In her last two years at Kenwood High, Sylvain met Carolyn Lawrence, a teacher who was also an important figure in AfriCOBRA, an African American artists’ collective founded on the South Side in 1968. “She became a mentor, recommended me for scholarships, and really opened up opportunities for me,” she recalled. “I saw things that my teachers were making happen. They were creating artistic aesthetics that spoke to political issues that Black people were addressing. Black artists were revolutionaries at the time. They said things no one else was saying.”
After high school, Sylvain attended the American Academy of Art downtown for three years, earning an associate degree in fine arts, painting and drawing. Then she had a variety of jobs: teaching, freelancing, working at an art supply store. “Teaching was an opportunity that was available to a young artist,” she said. “I got my first grant to start a free art program in the basement of the South Shore library.”
In 1984, Sylvain moved to California to escape winter and because her brother lived there. She went to San Francisco State University and got an undergraduate degree in the interdisciplinary arts department. “I could study fine art, but it's also where I really got interested in theater,” she said. “I always liked painting large and could do it for the stage.”
When she returned to Chicago — and South Shore — in 1991, Sylvain worked at Black theaters, particularly ETA Creative Arts Foundation, pretty much full time, designing, building and painting scenery. “That's where I learned the most about collaboration,” she said. “I was exposed to a wide array of Black playwrights, musicians, artists of all types. It was awesome. I also had my three sons between shows.”
While her children — Kahari (now 26), Kari (24), and Katon (22) — were growing up, Sylvain took what she called “a little detour.” “Much of theater is at night, so I switched to residential work for about 15 years,” she said. “I painted murals in children's rooms and curated people's art collections. I really loved it. I could make my own schedule and be 'close to my money' rather than having to wait longer to get paid by an institution.”
But once her sons — all of whom have become artists and often work with her — were older, Sylvain returned to public art. “It allows more of a voice for my work, and I want to be part of the conversation on the South Side,” she said. “We need to attack community blight and build a sense of self-identity for people who have moved into neighborhoods rather than living there from the start.”
Recent projects have ranged from a multi-panel mural called “The Talk” inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the first-floor windows of the MacArthur Foundation (the Marquette Building) to a pair of 10-foot-tall panels honoring Margaret Burroughs and Gwendolyn Brooks in the arched windows of The Forum Theater, an historic Bronzeville building. One of Sylvain's favorites, also in Bronzeville, is a tribute to the experimental music group AACM on the Mariano's at 39th Street.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sylvain and her sons have been responsible for two murals closer to home, both base-painted with the same pink house paint. “Stay Home, Make Art — I Miss Hugs” is on the North Side of the Hyde Park Art Center, while the wall of a former bank building at 71 Street and Jeffrey Boulevard has become a canvas for “Murals Move,” a campaign for neighborhood artists and other volunteers to contribute to the community.
Sylvain said that the pandemic has affected her teaching more than anything else. “People don't want you on site anymore, so I've turned my backyard into a studio for a fellowship program with six young artists, and fortunately I have the best neighbors in the world who like watching the process,” she said. “Also, teaching remotely at the Hyde Park Art Center and elsewhere is not my favorite thing to do.”
Nonetheless, teaching remains an important part of Sylvain's work and also brings her interests together. From 2016 to 2019, for example, she taught a set design course sponsored by Court Theatre at three high schools: Harper, Kenwood, and Dyett. It focused on August Wilson's “Fences” and culminated with the students each designing and building a scale model of a set for the play. “When they think about a career in theater, a lot of kids only think of acting,” she said. “The course showed them there's more.”
Thanks to the 3Arts Award, which has increased from $25,000 to $30,000 this year, there's also more on the horizon for Sylvain, who said she's “over the moon.” She plans to donate 10 percent of the money because so many people are struggling right now and, for the first time in her life, she'll be able to put aside six months of living expenses.
“I want to do larger public work and consolidate more of my energies,” she said. “The award can be a platform for fund-raising and open the door to fellowships. But most of all I want to create a means to give greater access to art materials and art experiences to children on the South Side of Chicago.”