Monday, February 27, 2017

Theaster Gates: The South Side's Urban Artist and Activist

The Stony Island Arts Bank, a hybrid between an art gallery, media archive, library, and community center, calls the South Side of Chicago home. A beautiful and temple-like space, the Stony Island Arts Bank was built in 1923 as a savings and trust. The crumbling building was recently saved from demolition by Theaster Gates. Today, the Stony Island Arts Bank is a flourishing center for community programming, art exhibitions, and archive for Ebony and Jet magazine as well as the record collections of several notable music artists. The Stony Island Arts Bank greatly serves the South Side community while also preserving its history.

The mastermind behind this project, Theaster Gates, is a native-born Chicagoan and a trained ceramicist and urban planner with a background in religious studies. Gates is an installation artist and urban developer whose projects address Chicago’s poverty and racial injustice. Gates, simultaneously a full-time social activist and a full-time artist, has stated that “[a]rt has the ability to help us imagine that the world we live in is really just today’s condition.” Gates has embarked on a truly creative path to success, with recurrent trends of having limited funding and support. For example, in order to raise money to renovate the Stony Island Arts Bank after he bought it from the city of Chicago one dollar, Theaster Gates used marble partitions from the building’s bathroom as bonds—an incredibly creativity solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem.

“I think I’ve been given the ability to see things. I can see not just the thing in front of me, but the potential inside the thing.” –Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates’ boundless creativity is evidently remarkable, but what cognitive processes make it so? Many of Steven M. Smith & Thomas B. Ward’s claims made in “Cognition and Creation of Ideas” ring true for the creative process of Theaster Gates. Smith & Ward explore many cognitive patterns as well as the impediments and aids to creative thinking. Theaster Gates avoids the “most common impediment to creative thinking,” a lack of knowledge. Gates holds a studio art and urban planning degree, which serve as an obvious advantage to Gates’ projects. Moreover, Gates practices many of the cognitive aids to creativity including combination, analogy, and noticing. Gates takes already existing structures and ideas to provide something new and life-living to the communities he serves. Gates stated that he thinks of himself as “an artist that was intervening simply by acquiring buildings.” Gates is also inspired by other art forms, like pottery and gospel singing, that he applies to his urban projects. By taking already existing ideas and processes and making them into something new to address noticed problems, Theaster Gates is able to solve complex issues with simple and functional solutions. 

In sum, Theaster Gates is a huge treasure to Chicago. He provides inspiration as well as tangible benefit to the city through his artistic process and projects. In his trademark spirit of positivist, Gates has stated,“[i]t is so evident that when art is present, things are better, even in the toughest circumstances."

To learn more about Theaster Gates, check out this amazing Art21 episode from which the quotes in this article are taken: 

To learn more about the programs occurring at the Stony Arts Bank, visit:


Smith & Ward: Smith, S.M. & Ward, T.B. (2012). Cognition and the creation of ideas. In K. J. Holyoak & R. G. Morrison (Eds.), Oxford handbook of thinking and reasoning. New York: Oxford University Press.


  1. I've never heard of the Stony Arts Bank, but now it's definitely on the list of places to visit in Chicago! I loved that you used a creative product that's so local. Gates reminds me a lot of T.S. Eliot in the sense that they weren't limited to artist and writer, respectively. Where Gates is not only an artist but also a social justice activist, ceramicist, urban planner, T.S. Eliot was not only a writer, but also an editor and critic.

  2. Theaster Gates seems like a truly innovative problem solver, and I think his idea for funding the Stony Island Arts Bank renovation is quite cool! The act of taking something existing and improving/changing it to serve another purpose creates such an interesting creative product; Gates very evidently exemplifies this form of creativity. Thanks for sharing his story!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.