Through the mediums of sculpture, video, installation, assemblage, drawing, and performance, Cheryl Pope confronts everyday issues of connectivity and identity. Cheryl collaborates to produce works that engage with social, political, and global conversations. Collaboration and outreach also allows for Cheryl to engage in community development.
As part time faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Fashion and Continuing Studies Department as well as teaching artist and consultant at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Cheryl discusses contemporary art with a general public of all ages and backgrounds. These conversations and reactions greatly influence the work she produces and the ways in which she seeks to engage the audience.
Q: How did you end up in Chicago?
A: I grew up in Chicago. I went to several undergrad programs around the country but returned to study at the School of the Art Institute, where I graduated from. During my studies there, I met the artist Nick Cave. He became my mentor and I remained in Chicago to study under him in his studio for over a decade.
Q: How did your career as an artist begin?
A: I have always made art, but I would like to say that my career as an artist began after graduate school in 2010. It was at that point that I was fully committed to a rigorous studio practice and exhibiting my work.
Q: Your work engages with community development. Do you come to the community with a project in mind or do they usually inspire your projects?
A: Both! Sometimes I arrive with a clear component of the project that is designed specifically for community voice or engagement and other times I arrive with a loose framework and am then, after engaging and listening to the communities, get ideas for the direction of the project. But in either case, the initial idea for the work is inspired by the communities. I work with a lot of young people in the city through teaching, so it is often that ideas emerge as a direct response through these first hand encounters and experiences.
Q: What have been some of the most fascinating conversations you’ve encountered upon reaching out to the community?
A: The trust and openness of young people in this city is what always gets me the most. Often, the first time they meet me is when the bell rings, class beings, and they are asked if they would like to participate in my project– and then we begin! 40 minutes later, the bell rings and I say “see you tomorrow” or “see you in a week!” They may wonder if they will ever see me again, but in those first 40 minutes we are able to connect, exchange, share, and be vulnerable on intense and intimate issues. It is in these moments that I feel closest to my mission, but it is only possible because these young people are willing to trust a stranger, to take a chance in order for their voices to be heard in order to make a difference.
Q: What prompted you to do the JUST YELL project?
A: I felt a responsibility to react to the gun violence in Chicago and its impact on youth in the city. I wanted to use a framework that would not reinforce the negatives of this issue that are a given, but instead, find a way to bring people together through a positive, active voice.
The history of Yelling traces back to the roots of cheerleading, when designated men were called Yellers and responsible to instigate the crowd to cheer for the desired outcome. The Yell project put each of the 400 Chicago Public School teens that participated in the project in the position of the Yeller. Therefore, their voices became active, powerful, and commanding.
There is a power to the idea of teams, sports, victory, and cheering that unites people. I remember the night the Blackhawks won and the whole city lit up as if we finally all agreed! It was an amazing feeling. It is from these experiences of sports as a framework that can bring people together that I decided to use to host the reactions to gun violence in the city.
Q: Can you expand your thoughts about love in today’s pop culture?
A: In the past, whenever working with young people on art projects, as soon as the heart would come out as an idea, I would immediately dismiss it. I would say, “No hearts, no love. Come on guys—we’ve gotta get deeper!”
Then with the JUST YELL project, it hit me. Why do we keep dismissing love from the conversation? Why do we think that it’s not important enough, or deep enough, or complex enough? So instead, Rihanna, Jay Z, and other pop radio stars are the ones that get to talk about love? Those are the texts that young people will read and listen to in order to make sense of this concept called L-O-V-E????
bell hooks, an American author, feminist, and social activist, re-surfaced the word love through her academic writing in the book titled On Visions of Love. Within this text she sites the absence of love as an issue, concept, and solution within education as a major problem and loss. She calls to question why it is only in pop culture that we give space for text and reactions to love.
Through this project, I too have awoken to this issue. The young people have taught me the importance that “love” remain present in these conversations. That the confusion of the concept of love to be addressed, discussed, and shared. That it is complex, difficult, and a challenge to understand, to give and receive, to act upon, and to maintain. And most importantly, that LOVE is most necessary to make the changes we want to see.