NORTH LAWNDALE — A coloring book about North Lawndale artists is giving young people a way to relax while showing their pride for the West Side.
The “Elvin Explores North Lawndale” book is a visual story that moves through some of the neighborhood’s most beloved landmarks. Allowing people to color a book filled with places in their community encourages residents to get out and explore their favorite places in Lawndale, said Alexie Young, founder of the Art West art center that spearheaded the project.
“North Lawndale is so rich in culture and architecture and social richness,” Young said. “But sometimes what happens is these assets are right in our backyard. And because they’re something we see all the time, we don’t necessarily participate in those places, and we overlook them.”
Art can also be relaxing, Young said, and people loved the coloring book because “people were trying to find healthy ways to cope with stress.”
The book tells the story of Elvin the elephant as he explores the neighborhood in search of a place to read. Elvin was designed by Jones CS, a creative brand founded by artists Kent Jones and Jay Simon. The team wanted the coloring book to tell a story about the neighborhood so it would encourage arts skills among young people and “create more formative literary experiences for children and families in North Lawndale,” Young said.
“There’s a lot of stories and history and facts and artifacts that’s right down the street that we never hear about,” Jones said. “You can take a story and use a cartoon to communicate it, and it softens it. It makes it digestible.”
The coloring book was developed in partnership with Open Books Chicago, a group dedicated to fostering a love for reading among children by expanding access to culturally relevant books. Some books were distributed at the launch of the North Lawndale Reads initiative, Open Books’ literacy campaign for the neighborhood that hosted a literature festival at Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
The group plans to print and distribute more copies, and will share details on the Art West website.
Stone Temple, the church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached during his campaign to end redlining in Chicago, is one of the landmarks featured in the coloring book. The book also showcases Art West, the Firehouse Community Arts Center, the Frederick Douglass Branch Library and the Martin Luther King Jr. Exhibit Center.
“Some of them are historic, and some of them are just cultural amenities that we enjoy. Some of the places, you wouldn’t say are historical, but they are definitely part of the West Side culture,” Young said.
The coloring book also includes addresses of each location so “families can use this book as a tour guide for themselves,” Young said.
The idea for the coloring book was born after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. The social unrest was reminiscent of the 1968 riots that tore through the West Side after King’s assassination, which destroyed many parts of the area that were already suffering due to neglect from the city.
Fearing parts of the neighborhoods might be destroyed once again, Young worked with Simon to photograph locations all around the West Side as a way of archiving key places in the community. Several of those photographs taken by Simon were used to design the images in the coloring book.
“We didn’t know if the entire city was going to burn down. We didn’t know what was going to happen. [We thought,] ‘Let’s see if we can archive some of these assets and try to tell the stories of these places,'” Young said.
Since the places featured in the coloring book are neighborhood staples, many families who read and color in it may have a personal connection to the locations. The artists behind the book hope it can encourage storytelling and spark intergenerational conversations among families who can share their own experiences with those places, which can illuminate to young people how valuable each place is.
“There may be people in our families that have had some direct experience with when Dr. King was here in the 60s,” Young said. “We want this to be a way to initiate storytelling. When people are looking at the page with Stone Temple Church, they may have a connection with that church and they may be able to share a story.”
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