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Young artists’ work to be featured at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Loft

The Loft Teen Arts Project commissioned seven finalists’ pieces, allocating between $1,500 and $2,500 to five individual artists and two groups.

Alyha Khalil, 17, holds up her art piece that will be displayed at The Loft, located at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Arts and Education Center on Halsted.
Alyha Khalil, 17, holds up her art piece that will be displayed at The Loft, located at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Arts and Education Center on Halsted.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Most of Alyha Khalil’s oil paintings take her a month or even longer to complete.

But in July, after hearing about the Loft Teen Art Project at Steppenwolf Theatre and after a week of painting marathons, six hours at a time, Khalil’s piece was complete.

“I’ve always wanted my art up in a gallery of some sort, whether that’s the Art Institute or… something as small as a school art show,” said Khalil, 17, of Irving Park. “Just seeing my art up is really encouraging and inspires me a lot to continue creating.”

A senior at Senn High School in Edgewater, Khalil was the youngest artist of the five individuals and two groups selected as finalists for the Loft Teen Arts Project. More than 150 young artists in the Chicago area applied, said Rae Taylor, manager of education partnerships at Steppenwolf.

Each finalist received between $1,500 and $2,500 to produce a piece inspired by the theme “The Future I See: Creating for Community.” The result: four paintings, two of which use mixed media, two photography projects and a textile made by twin sisters as they sent the fabric back and forth from their colleges: Duke University and Northwestern University.

The seven finalist pieces will be displayed for a year in the Loft, which encompasses the entire fourth floor of the theater’s new Arts and Education Center. The Loft is intended to be a “teen gallery,” a multidisciplinary touchpoint between theater and visual art, said Megan Shuchman, Steppenwolf’s director of education.

Steppenwolf Theatre’s new Arts and Education Center is located at 1650 North Halsted Street, adjacent to the iconic Chicago theater company’s main venue.
Steppenwolf Theatre’s new Arts and Education Center is located at 1650 North Halsted Street, adjacent to the iconic Chicago theater company’s main venue.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Steppenwolf began its $73 million expansion project in March of 2019. The center, which will also contain a 400-seat Round Theater and wine bar, opens to the public next month. The theater company hopes to make the Loft Teen Arts Project an annual event, Taylor said.

The fourth-floor Loft is outfitted with floor-to-ceiling windows, bright orange elevator doors, an outdoor terrace, a maker studio and more. But when teens and young adults come up to the Loft, Taylor said she wants them to feel the space is there specifically for them.

“Oftentimes, young folks get invited into places that are too precious to be touched because they look this nice,” Taylor said. “That’s never really the answer, particularly when you want to get them deeply engaged or to just have them feeling like they have agency and ownership... over the space.”

Khalil’s painting displays a grayscale portrait of Angela Davis, along with one of the activist’s famous quotes: “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” Flowers emerge from the painting, glued on where Davis’ hair would be, “to represent that Black hair is beautiful,” Khalil said.

Sketches of Davis already began filling a canvas when Khalil learned about the teen arts project, but hearing the project’s theme of “The Future I See: Creating for Community” only solidified her decision to submit that painting.

“The first thing that caught my eye was ‘community,’ ” Khalil said. “A lot of my work explores Black identities and their place in our communities... It was like, it only makes sense to make this piece.”

Rae Taylor (left) manager of Education Partnerships at Steppenwolf Theatre, and artist Alyha Khalil, discuss where and how student art pieces should be displayed at The Loft.
Rae Taylor (left) manager of Education Partnerships at Steppenwolf Theatre, and artist Alyha Khalil, discuss where and how student art pieces should be displayed at The Loft.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Even back in kindergarten, Khalil said she remembers constantly drawing stick-figure portraits of her family and friends. She strayed away from painting, though, feeling like she wasn’t good at using acrylic paints. It wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that Khalil experimented with oil paintings, which allowed her to bring to life the realism portraits she dreamt up in her mind, Khalil said. Nine oil paintings make up her completed work thus far, along with photography and other side art projects.

Khalil ended up using the same piece she applied with as the one that will hang in the Loft for the next year, but the other finalists made new pieces, commissioned through the project. Each artist received a “Steppen-buddy” to help them craft a budget for art supplies and create a timeline for completing their projects, Taylor said.

As a finalist, Khalil had the opportunity to be a student curator for the project, helping organize and maintain the gallery, determining where each piece should be displayed. Being a curator is what Khalil aspires to be, she said, something she plans to pursue, attending an art school after graduating high school this spring. Her dream would be to attend the School of the Art Institute, Khalil said.

“It’s really inspiring, just to see my art, seeing the process from this to what my future pieces would look like,” Khalil said. “This is barely the start.”

Other finalists include:

  • Elizabeth Cervantes (age 18) from Mount Greenwood with an oil painting project
  • Liz Olivarez Lyles (age 21) from Lake View with a mixed media project
  • Kaleia Maxey (age 17) from Beverly with a photography/collage project
  • Stevia Ndoe (age 18) from West Ridge/North Park with a photography project
  • Tia and Tyra Smith (age 20) from Chatham with a textile project
  • BUILD, a violence prevention and youth development organization based on the West side of Chicago, with a group artwork, medium TBA