Each of the Rebuild Foundation's sites has closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but programming continues virtually, and affiliated artists are being moved to respond to the unprecedented times.
"It was hard, because we do recognize that our sites provide a lot of solace and a lot of joy for people," said Programming Director Julie Yost in an interview. "These classes of yoga, meditation and creative expression are stress-relievers, to be perfectly honest, and seem like things people need at this time."
Rebuild did not want simply to move everything online and "return to normal," Yost said, acknowledging the stark abnormality of April 2020.
Capoeira, hip-hop dancing and visual arts programming for children have been cancelled. The meetings of a years-old writers’ workshop for adults over 60 have been cancelled. It is unclear when in-person cultural presentations and discussions will resume.
"Just these little things that create a rounded life for folks that might not be critical and essential services, they are still just so important in so many ways,” Yost said. “It's really devastating."
Yost stressed that she is not pressing artists affiliated with Rebuild to begin online instruction.
"Everyone needs time and space to process what's happening," she said. "This might not be the time for a lot of outward-facing things. For me, particularly, and I think for everyone, it just feels like this time of stillness. There's a lot of introspection occurring, so I even think that the things we're putting out there, they support that type of activity."
Three artists — DJ-in-residence Duane Powell, wellness practitioner-in-residence Stacy Patrice and poet laureate avery r. young — spoke to the Herald about their current practices.
"I think we're so fortunate that we have so many creative artists in our spaces and in our midst that really do provide solace for people, and that really can be the bulk of what our offering is," Yost said. "It really does feel good and right and a contribution and not just vying for attention. We can vie for attention, but our purpose is to get people into our spaces, and our spaces aren't open. It only feels right to put something out there if it is a true offering."
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Recently, Duane Powell, a house music authority, has been posting music to his Mixcloud and live-streaming his Sunday Service series normally held at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave., over Instagram.
"It's hard, though, because the thing about my program is that the reason it's called 'House Sunday Service' is because my events always end up feeling like church, between the way it's organic and the way the audience feels free to release," he said. "It's a fellowship. It's congregational. … It's spiritual."
DJs across the country have been streaming and broadcasting music since the pandemic shutdowns began; many are asking for donations, now that clubs have shut down. Powell said the demand from cooped-up fans desperate for a morale boost has been huge.
"For at least for the time that you're playing your music, it's taking them away from what's really going on," he said. "It's really heavy right now. This is new territory for all of us. People are really trying to find some normalcy in all of this, and this gives them a little bit of normalcy."
When he performs live, Powell said he knows what track he is going to play next, but the energy exchange between DJ and audience plays a role in how the set progresses. That synergy is much harder now.
"You try to imagine in your head that these people that are looking at you are actually standing before you and dancing to you," he said. "I have certain people in my congregation, if you will, in my fan base, who I think of in my head. And I try to think of how they respond. I have to people who are really muses, if you will. You kind of know how they move and groove and dance. I love creating energy. I love energetic things, so I kind of have to imagine that myself."
Tapping into his memories helps: "I definitely have certain parties in my head, when I feel like there were these epic moments when what you were doing as a DJ really steered the crowd a certain way. I have to tap into those memories really hard and use that energy to guide myself."
Chicago's house music scene has always been a safe space from its genesis in the 1980s, when it arose from an LGBTQ community in the throes of the AIDS crisis. This is not the first time house has existed alongside a pandemic, but Powell said this one is different.
"We haven't had a pandemic where the world was quarantined, where we have to not be around each other," he observed. "The AIDS epidemic has of course impacted the Black LGBT community hard." Early luminary Ryan Hardy died from it in 1992; today, Black Chicagoans are disproportionately dying from the coronavirus. The president's rhetoric about the coronavirus, which he has repeatedly dubbed "the Chinese virus," concerns Powell.
"It just reminds me of when they were calling AIDS the gay disease," he said.
But after all the gloom, Powell expects creativity to follow.
"So much great art has come from adversity, all that tragedy," he said. "As artists are doing as they know how to do, they're going inside themselves and creating." He said visual artists are painting more and noted some writers' proclivity for isolation while they work.
And once the clubs reopen?
"Oh, my God, I'm concerned," Powell said. "It's going to be crazy!" He cited the crowds of Chicagoans who came out in March to enjoy the first warm day of spring, prompting the mayor to close the lakefront and popular parks.
"Something I've always said about our scene is the way we hug on each other, the way we love on each other, is crazy. We're a loving community as much as we bicker amongst each other," he said. "That's the first thing when you walk in the club, you have to walk the room and you hug every single person you know in the room."
With society's newfound appreciation for low-paid essential workers — the nurses' aides, the farmworkers, the grocery stockers — Powell also hopes that a resolve to pay artists what they are worth will come out of the pandemic.
"It's not something as simple as plugging in an iPod; it's not something as simple of putting on a playlist and playing music from your phone," he said. "It's a whole thing, and I'm hoping that people really see the worth of artists and what they bring to the spirit of the world."
"Chicago has more DJs than we have trees!" he said. "We're the only city in the country or in the world musically that has contributed so much and so many varieties of music. We're the home of house music. We're the home of modern gospel. We're the home of modern blues. We have our own jazz. We're so essential to rock. Not many cities can say that they were responsible for so many genres of music and so much of the culture."
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Stacy Patrice is "by most people's definition an artist and a yogi" but considers herself "a soul healer … someone who is here for the connecting of the dots that's going to help heal humanity." Yoga is the focus of her work at Rebuild, but she described it as "healing art": providing experiences through which people "are really able to discover for themselves who they are, what is is that's most important to them and how to get past the layers and things that are stuck on them that don't allow them to progress in the ways that they would like to."
A born outsider, Patrice described a studious, creative and isolated childhood. Her father influenced her current practice, in which creative and spiritual worlds work in concert, and with his interests in New Age thinking, the occult and Black spiritualism; alas, she studied business at Florida A&M University. But she returned to Chicago with a hunger to reconnect with the arts. From 2001, she modeled, took photographs and worked on hairstyling for music videos before diving into a 15-month program to teach yoga after the birth of her son in 2009.
"Therapeutics, chanting, being able to teach an entire class in Sanskrit — all of these very different modalities. And somewhere in that training, it literally popped out to me that this was the connection I needed to kind of pop everything else open and make it more alive," she said. She did her dissertation on the connection between yoga and art: "I felt it so innately that I was like, 'I need to be able to describe this to other people.'"
"Whether that's pushing your body to limits, whether that's pushing your mind to new limits or changing your energy or finding parts of yourself that want to open up to experience is the same thing in creating," she said. "You have to try different mediums or different practices or ways of doing things. To me, they're intricately linked by the practice. And whether that practice is internal mastery or mastering physical things and being able to shape those things with your visions, to me, is like the exact same thing overall."
"That's what an artist is masterful at: taking what it is that you see, that other people can't see, and making it tangible," she said. Using sound, breath, music and talk therapy, Patrice intuits her audience, contextualizing subconscious problems with yoga practice, discussion, guest speakers, movement and meditation, and fostering change for life — once a week for the last five years at Rebuild's Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, 1456 E. 70th St.
That was all much easier to do in person and not in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Physical proximity was important for the sense of community it provided; Patrice said attendees were looking for something and found the motivation to do something about it at her Soul Healing Yoga programs.
"It was just a complete community experience that we all really thrived from, to be in each other's company, to share what we were going through with each other, to have that reflection with each other in practice, in our journey, and to be able to know that these are the same exact people who are on the same path that you're on," she explained. "Regardless of where you want to take your path, they are with you."
Programming was cancelled on Friday, March 13 — first for two weeks, then indefinitely. This year's Black Divinity Meditation Day had to go online on March 22, after last year's event saw 130 people, some of whom had never meditated before, come out to the Arts Bank.
For an event about togetherness, it did not translate well for Patrice. "But there were some people very happy to have someone remind them to do the meditation," she said. "I told them how to get into it and how to guide themselves in it, which for some people was even more helpful, to be able to do it for themselves."
Now Patrice teaches "Soul Healing Satsang" online every Sunday at 1 p.m. on Rebuild's Instagram. Taking minds to an expansive space, she said, is what people need now.
Her students tell her they have no idea what to do, never having spent this much time by themselves or their families, never having home-schooled before, never having had to entertain others to keep them afloat, never having had to face such financial uncertainty — in sum, "I don't know with all of this time."
In turn, Patrice lectured on March 29 about "the abundance of home and the connection beyond the screen," looking at books, records and music gathered and turning it into “a playground” for peace and happiness, not productivity. The coronavirus itself is an invisible peril, sparking fear of the outdoors and being around people who may have it. Patrice said it links back with her work before, around navigating through intuition, getting the mind still enough to see what's good for people individually.
"You've really got to get in touch with yourself and your soul," she urged. In an insecure, unstable world, "Let the systems crumble and find yourself being able to rebuild." And don't pull back from each other: "Things will never be our expected normal again, I don't think. But I do think there will be a time where we will be able to come together again, and to start from scratch is just devastating to me."
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Through Rebuild, avery r. young published “5 things getting me through this Corona lock-down” on March 30.
((( in my Nina Simone voice}}} You can’t help it.
An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times …
- “Steam Treatments.”
- “Drink Tea.”
- “Dance anytime I feel like it.”
- “Sing loud. Every time I want to.”
- “Write poems.”
The first for 20 minutes with scented water boiling on the stove while watching a YouTube video. The second, whether herbal or Earl Grey. The third, "I have 2 crooked feet that can cut a mean rug." The fourth to R&B, gospel or soul. The fifth, with Simone in mind: "I am writing poems that reflect the times in which I live. I live among this election. This election to hopefully rid us of an Easter-Egg hunt president. I live in a time of Covid-19."
"The things that I'm doing with other materials is really various ways of infusing various methods and materials to create poems," young said in an interview. "That's the basis of my work." At Rebuild, he focuses on the Arts Bank's library, including its new materials from the Johnson Publishing Company and the collection of Frankie Knuckles, the house music godfather.
He said this is not the first time he has self-isolated, recalling the periods of brazing sub-zero temperatures in 2019, but acknowledged that the coronavirus is different because of its infusion with politics and public anxiety. Like Powell, he noted the crisis' racism, whether that which is directed at East Asian people or the deadly toll the pandemic is taking on African Americans. Like Patrice, he noted the invisible terror of an airborne virus.
"We're only bombarded with information that can definitely scare folks into the house, or bombarded with information about it being a conspiracy theory and just a lot of misinformation that is going to have me like, what I want to do is stay home as a means of being socially responsible," he said.
He is still writing writing, utilizing the language around which he grew up and exploring themes related to Black Chicago culture and history — "playing with the ways in which people can enter and exit a poem, basically" — and presenting poetry that is publicly accessible, whether it performs on page or on the stage.
"I'm fluent in both," he said. But his life as a performer has ceased amid the pandemic. Galleries are closed. Panel discussions have ceased. Teaching and mentoring youth in poetry has curbed. His book tour dates at academic institutions are cancelled.
Performing online is different than performing with an audience, but he does not grieve the retreat from public spaces that would endanger his health.
"What I am doing is sitting out ways in which, when I return to what I'm normally used to doing, that those performances and spaces will be so much more significant and special," he said. "I'm dreaming bigger and deeper for future performances. That's the space I am in, as opposed to sad and grievous about not being able to go out and perform. When they say, 'Oh, it can happen,' Oh! It's about to really be on."
Post-pandemic, young expects more sanitation of technical equipment in performances (at the last event he attended, on March 11, the organizers had banned microphones as a public health precaution), a preponderance of artistic work addressing the crisis and a greater awareness of how healing performance spaces can be.
"Within time, things will be back to normal. The residue of the COVID-19 will linger for a force of time, then it will be back to business," he predicted. "Definitely in my practice, I'm being very intentional and about how impactful a performance space can be."
In the meantime, young is going to continue doing the work.
"I've had projects and subject matter that has nothing to do with the isolation that I feel now, but then I've been writing, and creating work that has everything to do with the isolation that I'm in now," he said. "This current moment in time is just added to the pot."
He quoted Simone again, who said, "An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times."
"I have work about the water crisis in Flint," young said. "And as urgent as I think and still believe the water crisis in Flint is, especially in a time like this, I can still say, 'Oh, that's Flint. That's not Chicago.' At one point in the past, we could say, 'Oh, that's China. Oh, that's not America.' This is a thing that everything and body on this globe is dealing with right now, and then they're trying to navigate through. This is an unprecedented time, and I hope there'll not be another time like this."