In 2008, a series of events unfolded that eventually led me to the artistic opportunity of a lifetime. I’m a teacher at Columbia College Chicago and until recently, the Artist in Residence at the Oak Park Police Department. Competition for traditional residencies is fierce and wanting to find meaningful work that interested me, I thought about how to use my art to contribute to my community. From one small idea grew the inspiration for a volunteer residency program with my local law enforcement department.
A few years ago, I was casting around for a way in which I could contribute to my community. I was looking for a project that would use my own personal skills and support my artistic growth. Finding a volunteer position that fit my needs was, well, impossible. At the time, I was painting area waterways and thought about putting those paintings to good use in an unorthodox way.
I wondered if hanging art work in a high-stress workplace would be useful. Would people who might not ordinarily have the time or inclination to visit a gallery or museum find a moment of peacefulness in my landscape paintings? The project taking shape in my mind was one in which I’d blend art and empathy to offer a moment’s respite in a busy, stressful environment.
Few jobs are more stressful than law enforcement so I decided to pitch this idea to our Police Chief, Rick Tanksley. I wrote a letter asking if he’d be interested in having six of my Waterway landscape paintings hang in his station’s lockdown for officers and staff to enjoy. He gave his permission and while hanging this first show, I wondered if other artist’s would be interested in hanging work in this tiny but heavily used hallway, not as a way to sell work but as a way to say "thank you" to the police force for looking out for our community. To date, 18 artists have shared their work in busy, secluded hallway. In fact, the only way for the public to visit this art space is to get arrested!
Every six weeks or so, I’d deliver art work, hang a show, and in the process got to know a few people and I became curious about police work. Being a person who loves tools of all sorts, I began to wonder what tools officers thought were important and how they used them in their jobs. Even though our jobs were very different, I began to think about a place of intersection…a point where police work and art work could meet, meld, and provide a powerful message for officers, me the artist and our community. I was collecting police stories, information and sketches for ideas about drawings, and it occurred to me I had enough enthusiasm and enough ideas to put together a whole art project. I decided to ask Chief Tanklsey if I could begin and volunteer artist residency program with the department and create a body of work about law enforcement. Actually, it turned out that I was the department’s first volunteer.
Working with the police was not always comfortable. I often heard stories that amazed, shocked, and disturbed me. I learned firsthand what we require of our law enforcement officials that you do not learn in film and fiction. I shifted from painting tranquil waterscapes to depicting the gritty intersection between officers and street life.
In a traditional residency, your job is spelled out and there are usually firm dates and show agreements to adhere to. Creating my own residency meant inventing my own path. I booked our local library’s gallery space for the show opening in June of 2010 and needed to organize the event. I learned a great deal about mounting an exhibit and because I had total control as well, I could present my work in a way I thought best. I booked an adjacent room near the gallery space in the library and asked Chief Tanksley to speak. I also invited the writer Daniel Smith, author of On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police, to speak as well. The three of use presented a personal view of law enforcement that few citizens get to hear about. Daniel told stories from his book reflecting his multi-generational connection with the Chicago Police Dept. The Chief spoke about the impact of the residency and art space on the department, and I shared what I had learned about blending art and activism.
The whole experience changed and expanded my art practice. It helped me to feel more connected to my community and more committed to the value of art in creating change and building connections. I’d recommend to any artist in any discipline if you are having trouble fitting into traditional residencies, find an organization whose work you respect and that you are interested in and set about finding a way to invent your own residency.
Lindsay Olson makes conceptual art about unusual subjects. After her residency with the Oak Park Police Department, her current project, Manufactured River, takes her behind the scenes of several area waste water treatment plants. She began her career as a fashion designer and went back to school as a mature student to study fine arts at Columbia College Chicago where she teaches part-time. After recovering from transplant shock moving from New York to the Midwest 30 years ago, she now considers herself an ardent Chicago-area resident. www.lindsayolsonart.com