WEST GARFIELD PARK — A slew of public art projects and cultural programs will soon come to the West Side courtesy of Legler Regional Library’s inaugural artist-in-residence, Alexandra Antoine.
Antoine is the first artist-in-residence for Chicago Public Libraries. The residency will last two years and will use art to foster ways for neighbors to connect with the resources at the library.
Antoine’s approach to art is rooted in her identity as a Haitian American. Her work also incorporates visual elements and art techniques of Black people from all around the world.
“My work is very much African diasporic in nature,” Antoine said. “I think about my work as a space for opportunity. When people see it or interact with it, they can have space to remember things that have been lost.”
The program will allow Legler to be an anchor for arts in the area. This will improve the presence of art opportunities and public art that reflects the character of the neighborhood, said Chris Brown, commissioner of Chicago Public Libraries.
“Equitable and open access to knowledge includes access to art, particularly art that reflects the community around it,” Brown said.
Antoine uses her art as a platform to bring together Black experiences from many walks of life, she said. Her work emphasizes the ways descendants of enslaved African people are connected by a shared history and ongoing struggles.
“We can see the connectedness in everything. Even though it seems like we’re isolated, we’re really not,” Antoine said.
The first phase of Antoine’s residency will focus on building “sustainable relationships” with local organizations so her projects can elevate the work already being done, she said. The residency can be a way of building connections with neighborhood schools, local health organizations and groups dedicated to public safety, so their projects can also have a home at the library, Antoine said.
Some of Antoine’s work already aligns with the priorities of residents and neighborhood groups, like her artistic interests in food that grew from her fascination with “Haitian culinary dishes and the ingredients we used growing up,” she said.
Antoine has incorporated dining experiences into her art; for example, she invited people to share a meal and “discuss how we see food and its relationship with healing and with remembrance,” she said.
“That was a way for me to use a medium to get people to start thinking and talking with people they may not have known,” she said.
A focus of the residency will be bringing together people by “creating communal spaces in our neighborhoods where we can talk about issues, but through food,” Antoine said.
Food scarcity has been a significant issue for residents living near Legler Regional Library. Much of West Garfield Park is considered to be a food desert, an area where residents must travel more than a mile to get to a supermarket.
The artist-in-residence program builds upon previous investments into Legler Regional Library.
Legler reopened in 2020 after $11 million in renovations that upgraded it to the status of a regional library. Compared to a typical branch, a regional library has a more extensive book collection, as well as technology and facilities like the YOUmedia studios, where young people can learn skills like graphic design photography and video production.
There had been no regional library on the West Side for 40 years, as Legler lost its regional designation in 1977 due to a drop in visitors. New features at the renovated library include a recording studio, maker lab, adult computer lab and an art studio for the artist-in-residence.
In the same way libraries make it easier for people to access knowledge and information, they can be a hub for artistic learning, Antoine said. It’s especially important for people to connect with art that is relevant to their experiences and their culture, she said.
“Learning art in academic settings, I was always curious about why what I saw growing up was not what I was learning about in school,” Antoine said. Art “gives people an opportunity to see what is out there and what is possible.”
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