I really love color. I notice it everywhere and in everything. My family makes fun of me because I like to use colors with elusive-sounding names, like celadon...
ecru...carmine. Now, if you haven't noticed, I am black, thank you—
and when you grow up in a segregated city as I have, like Chicago, you're conditioned to believe that color and race can never be separate. There's hardly a day that goes by that somebody is not reminding you of your color. Racism is my city's vivid hue.
Now, we can all agree that race is a socially constructed phenomenon, but it's often hard to see it in our everyday existence. Its pervasiveness is everywhere. The neighborhoods I grew up in were filled with a kind of culturally coded beauty. Major commercial corridors were lined with brightly painted storefronts that competed for black consumer dollars. The visual mash-ups of corner stores and beauty supply houses, currency exchanges, are where I actually, inadvertently learned the foundational principles of something I would later come to know is called color theory. I can remember being pretty intimidated by this term in college—color theory. All these stuffy old white guys with their treatises and obscure terminologies. I'd mastered each one of their color palettes and associated principles. Color theory essentially boils down to the art and science of using color to form compositions and spaces. It's not so complicated.
This was my bible in college. Josef Albers posited a theory about the color red, and it always has stuck with me. He argues that the iconic color of a cola can is red, and that in fact all of us can agree that it's red but the kinds of reds that we imagine are as varied as the number of people in this room. So imagine that. This color that we've all been taught since kindergarten is primary—red, yellow, blue—in fact is not primary, is not irreducible, is not objective but quite subjective. What?
Albers called this "relational." Relational. And so it was the first time that I was able to see my own neighborhood as a relational context. Each color is affected by its neighbor. Each other is affected by its neighbor.
In the 1930s, the United States government created the Federal Housing Administration, which in turn created a series of maps which were using a color-coding system to determine which neighborhoods should and should not receive federal housing loans. Their residential security map was its own kind of color palette, and in fact was more influential than all of those color palettes that I had been studying in college combined. Banks would not lend to people who lived in neighborhoods like mine. That's me in D86. Their cartographers were literally coloring in these maps and labeling that color "hazardous." Red was the new black, and black neighborhoods were colored.
The problem persists today, and we've seen it most recently in the foreclosure crisis. In Chicago, this is best symbolized by these Xs that are emblazoned on the fronts of vacated houses on the South and West Side. The reality is that someone else's color palettes were determining my physical and artistic existence. Ridiculous.
I decided that I'd create my own color palette and speak to the people who live where I do and alter the way that color had been defined for us. It was a palette that I didn't have to search far for and look for in a treatise, because I already knew it. What kind of painter emerges from this reality? What color is urban? What color is ghetto? What color is privilege? What color is gang-related? What color is gentrification? What color is Freddie Gray? What color is Mike Brown? Finally, I'd found a way to connect my racialized understanding of color with my theoretical understanding of color. And I gave birth to my third baby: "Color(ed) Theory."
"Color(ed) Theory" was a two-year artistic project in which I applied my own color palette to my own neighborhoods in my own way. Now, if I walked down 79th Street right now and I asked 50 people for the name of the slightly greener shade of cyan, they would look at me sideways.
But if I say, "What color is Ultra Sheen?"—oh, a smile emerges, stories about their grandmother's bathroom ensue. I mean, who needs turquoise when you have Ultra Sheen? Who needs teal when you have Ultra Sheen? Who needs ultramarine when you have...
This is exactly how I derived my palette. I would ask friends and family and people with backgrounds that were similar to mine for those stories and memories. The stories weren't always happy but the colors always resonated more than the product itself. I took those theories to the street. "Ultra Sheen." "Pink Oil Moisturizer." If you're from Chicago, "Harold's Chicken Shack."
"Currency Exchange + Safe Passage." "Flamin' Red Hots." "Loose Squares"...and "Crown Royal Bag."
I painted soon-to-be-demolished homes in a much-maligned area called Englewood. We'd gather up as much paint as I could fit in my trunk, I'd call my most trusted art homies, my amazing husband always by my side, and we'd paint every inch of the exteriors in monochromatic fashion. I wanted to understand scale in a way that I hadn't before. I wanted to apply the colors to the biggest canvas I could imagine...houses. So I'd obsessively drive up and down familiar streets that I'd grown up on, I'd cross-reference these houses with the city's data portal to make sure that they'd been tagged for demolition—unsalvageable, left for dead. I really wanted to understand what it meant to just let color rule, to trust my instincts, to stop asking for permission. No meetings with city officials, no community buy-in, just let color rule in my desire to paint different pictures about the South Side.
These houses sit in stark contrast to their fully lined counterparts. We'd paint to make them stand out like Monopoly pieces in these environments. And we'd go on these early Sunday mornings and keep going until we ran out of that paint or until someone complained.
"Hey, did you paint that?" a driver asked as I was taking this image one day.
Me, nervously: "Yes?"
His face changed. "Aw, I thought Prince was coming."
He had grown up on this block, and so you could imagine when he drove past and saw one of its last remaining houses mysteriously change colors overnight, it was clearly not a Crown Royal bag involved, it was a secret beacon from Prince.
And though that block was almost all but erased, it was the idea that Prince could pop up in unexpected places and give free concerts in areas that the music industry and society had deemed were not valuable anymore. For him, the idea that just the image of this house was enough to bring Prince there meant that it was possible. In that moment, that little patch of Eggleston had become synonymous with royalty. And for however briefly, Eric Bennett's neighborhood had regained its value. So we traded stories despite being strangers about which high school we'd gone to and where we'd grown up, and Mrs. So-and-so's candy store—of being kids on the South Side. And once I revealed that in fact this project had absolutely nothing to do with Prince, Eric nodded in seeming agreement, and as we parted ways and he drove off, he said, "But he could still come!"
He had assumed full ownership of this project and was not willing to relinquish it, even to me, its author. That, for me, was success.
I wish I could tell you that this project transformed the neighborhood and all the indices that we like to rely on: increased jobs, reduced crime, no alcoholism—but in fact it's more gray than that. "Color(ed) Theory" catalyzed new conversations about the value of blackness. "Color(ed) Theory" made unmistakably visible the uncomfortable questions that institutions and governments have to ask themselves about why they do what they do. They ask equally difficult questions of myself and my neighborhood counterparts about our value systems and what our path to collective agency needs to be. Color gave me freedom in a way that didn't wait for permission or affirmation or inclusion. Color was something that I could rule now. One of the neighborhood members and paint crew members said it best when he said, "This didn't change the neighborhood, it changed people's perceptions about what's possible for their neighborhood," in big and small ways.
Passersby would ask me, "Why are you painting that house when you know the city's just going to come and tear it down?" At the time, I had no idea, I just knew that I had to do something. I would give anything to better understand color as both a medium and as an inescapable way that I am identified in society. If I have any hope of making the world better, I have to love and leverage both of these ways that I'm understood, and therein lies the value and the hue.