Isiah Thoughtpoet Veney poses for a portrait in front of his artwork on display at the groundbreaking for Englewood Connect on Sept. 27, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

RIVER WEST — Photographer, poet and community organizer Isiah “ThoughtPoet” Veney has dedicated his craft to capturing the essence and joy of Black liberation on the South Side for more than a decade.

Behind the lens, Veney’s shot stills of Chicago artists like Chance the Rapper and Chief Keef and poeticized the efforts of community leaders Tonika Johnson and Michelle Rashad, of Imagine Englewood If

Most recently, Veney’s artwork was enlarged and displayed on boards surrounding the $14 million Englewood Connect development — an ode to the Black and Brown women leading the charge to revitalize Englewood. The Sun-Times dubbed him an activist “carrying the legacy of Black Chicago forward.” 

In a new exhibit, Veney turns the camera inward to highlight places, people and moments on the South Side that propelled his artistic career. 

Guests can view “Lil Chico From Tuley Park” at its opening celebration 7-9 p.m. Saturday at A Very Serious Gallery, 673 N. Milwaukee Ave. The exhibit will run until April 8 alongside “Creative Access,” a production by Chicago-based multimedia artist David “EWRKS” Ellis.

Artists JazStarr, Recoechi and Love Day will perform at the family-friendly, alcohol-free event. Tickets are free, but all proceeds will be donated to support arts programs at The Bloc. Tickets are available online

Veney’s work has taken him to every crevice on the South Side, but “Lil Chico From Tuley Park” will be “one of the most personal galleries I’ve ever done,” he said. 

“This gallery is going to shed light on who I am and where my inspiration comes from with my style of photography, writing and community work,” Veney said. “It all comes from real trauma and memories, good and bad, that I gained from living at 539 E. 91st St.”

A shot of Chatham’s Tuley Park by artist Isiah “ThoughtPoet” Veney. Credit: Isiah "ThoughtPoet" Veney

Before Veney was “ThoughtPoet,” he was “Chico,” a nickname his grandparents gave him after they adopted him and his two siblings, he said. 

The newly formed family moved to Chatham area, a community that was bustling at the time with “Black wealth,” Veney said. He watched over the years as disinvestment robbed the community of its resources, he said.

Veney attended school at Burnside Scholastic Academy and spent Sundays at Burnside Baptist Church. But his fondest memories were at Tuley Park, 501 E. 90th Place, across the street from his home, Veney said.

Artwork of Tuley Park created by local artist David “EWRKS” Ellis. Credit: David "EWRKS" Ellis

Veney had a “very rough life” growing up, but some of the best moments were at Tuley Park, where he played and received mentorship from local legend “Big Reg,” who taught him “it was OK not to know your real father.” 

When guests walk into Veney’s exhibit, they’ll see photos of Tuley Park, the field house and the 3 King Drive bus, which Veney rode almost every day on his way to Harlan High School. 

There will also be photos of local artists and the Bud Billiken Parade — a staple in Veney’s household that defined how he looks at and depicts art, he said. Yearly, “the concept of Black joy” is on full display at the parade, Veney said.

Each photo is captioned with a poem. 

“Lil Chico From Tuley Park”  is an ode to Veney’s past and present, he said. It was created in honor of his grandfather, who died last year, Veney said. 

When people view it, “they’ll understand where my heart lies, which is in Chicago,” Veney said.

“I felt like it was time for people to understand who I am,” Veney said. “When the name ThoughtPoet comes up, I want to make sure my city knows that they can trust me and I’m homegrown. I was born and raised on the South Side, and my goal and dream are to let the world know that Chicago ain’t nothing to f— with. Period.” 

A photo featured in “Lil Chico From Tuley Park” of Hip-Hop legend Freddie Old Soul, a mother and friend who has helped ThoughtPoet creatively through the years. Credit: Isiah "ThoughtPoet" Veney.

Uplifting the city has become a lifelong purpose, Veney said. 

Recently, Veney launched Unsocial Aesthetics, a creative agency documenting, unifying and uplifting Black artists and activists.

“My intentions have always been to create and build genuine connections and leave positive impacts while inspiring people,” Veney said. “The goal is to continue building that space and helping artists get their projects out. I want to continue telling Black Chicago stories and attaching visuals to them.“ 

Creating a platform and premiering an exhibit that showcases Veney’s life has been “daunting,” he said.

“But I really want people to understand who I am, and I don’t have anything to hide,” he said.

“I’m trying to make sure the city knows it’s the best, and the person leading the wave loves the city. I want to make sure the art and organizing is recognized because this is how we’re going to continue building in this city to make it better for years to come. If anyone doesn’t get anything from what I’m doing, I would love for them to understand that.”

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Atavia Reed is a reporter for Block Club Chicago, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis