Local artists take on the criminal justice system in new exhibit

Seven artists will display their work Aug. 6 through Oct. 12 at the Sullivan Galleries at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Dorothy Burge speaks at a quilt-making workshop in April.

Dorothy Burge speaks at a quilt-making workshop in April.


Dorothy Burge comes from a long line of quilters. Both of her great-grandmothers used their skills to chronicle histories and bring communities together.

She resisted quilting when she was young because she thought it was only for “old people.”

Now, the 64-year-old uses her quilts to create social change.

Burge is one of seven artists chosen to display works at the “Envisioning Justice” exhibit at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibit, which opens Tuesday, takes a creative approach to discussing the country’s criminal justice system.

Envisioning Justice

‘Envisioning Justice’

When: Aug. 5-Oct. 12

Where: Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 33 S. State Street, seventh floor

Admission: Free

Info: www.saic.edu/sullivan-galleries

The project brings together artists from all over Chicago to approach the topic of mass incarceration from a new perspective, said Gabrielle Lyon, executive director of Illinois Humanities, the nonprofit putting on the show.

“This is not just art for art’s sake, this is really an exhibition that’s helping to develop empathy and humanize a set of experiences that often can be really masked by policy and research,” Lyon said.

The exhibit is part of a greater Envisioning Justice initiative that encourages Chicagoans to reimagine the criminal justice system. Through Envisioning Justice, Illinois Humanities has created a network of organizations that provide services for and education around those affected by incarceration, Lyon said.

Lyon said the exhibit aims to shine a light on injustices within the criminal justice system. It acts as “a kind of snapshot of the diverse experiences, voices and insights into the really horrific ways that incarceration impacts communities,” Lyon said.

“16 Shots and a Cover Up” quilt by Dorothy Burge.

“16 Shots and a Cover-Up” quilt by Dorothy Burge.


One of those snapshots is Burge’s quilt, “16 Shots and a Cover-Up,” that will be on display at the exhibit. The quilt portrays her great-nephew as Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old who was killed by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014.

“That could have been my nephew who had been shot down,” she said. “Laquan could have been any one of our children.”

Burge said she used McDonald’s autopsy report to know exactly where to place the bullet holes on the boy on the quilt.

“Visually, the fact that you see 16 bullet holes in someone, and you see where he was shot, I think that really makes an impact,” she said.

To Burge, “envisioning justice” means raising awareness for issues that affect people, and particularly, African American people.

For video artist Kirsten Leenaars, “envisioning justice” is about building strong communities even in the face of incarceration. Leenaars created an immersive video experience that showcases community members from Circles & Ciphers, a Rogers Park-based restorative justice organization that uses hip-hop to help those affected by the prison system.

Leenaars prompted the participants to freestyle on the topic of “freedom.” She said as an artist, she wanted to create a platform for people to express themselves.

“When people can feel that, through their creative expression, they are heard or seen, I think that’s a super empowering form of sharing something,” she said.

But the most impactful part of the experience, Leenaars said, was the “tangible” energy and joy she felt in the room while filming the video.

“Some of the people’s stories are really difficult, and they have experienced really hard times,” she said. “We often are presented a bleak image, so it’s really empowering to imagine something different — to make sense of all the joy that also exists.”

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