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Closed Bronzeville school becomes a student art gallery

Scott Sikkema, right, explains the student-made models of Anthony Overton Elementary School.

Scott Sikkema, right, explains the student-made models of Anthony Overton Elementary School. He and others from the Chicago Partnership in Education along with three other arts organizations hosted "Opening Closings," a student-driven art show about the importance of schools in communities. | Rachel Hinton/ Sun-Times

It was hard for Irene Robinson not to cry as she walked the halls of the former Anthony Overton Elementary School.

Five of Robinson’s children attended the school before it was closed by Chicago Public Schools in 2013. Since then, the building has fallen into a state of disrepair. The flooring has been torn up, ceiling tiles are missing and some doors and windows are now boarded up or covered in caution tape, with glass shattered from attempts to enter.

“It was so much more than a school,” Robinson said through tears. “This was a family. Every time I pass by here I feel like this is a gravesite.”

“Opening Closings” is a collaboration between Borderless Studios, DOCOMOMO-US-Chicago and the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education. For Saturday only, the former Bronzeville school featured student artwork. The exhibit is part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial

The faded blue paint of the school is a stark contrast from the neighboring red-brick homes at the intersection of 49th Street and Indiana Avenue.

“We wanted to give high school students the sense that they can question what a school is and what it means when it closes,” said Scott Sikkema, education director for the arts partnership. “We wanted to allow them the space to express that fully and to explore how, even though this is no longer a school, it can fit into the community again.”

Fifty students from the nearby Daniel Hale Williams Preparatory School of Medicine created or contributed to the exhibits at Overton.

Among the somber displays, one classroom showcases paper airplanes — made of used worksheets — hauntingly still as they are suspended in mid-flight.

Another, a room where a white tarp is draped to create the illusion of a tent over composition notebooks and cushions and books, is an eerie callback to what it was like “to be a young child at school,” Sikkema said.

An exhibit created by students at the Daniel Hale Williams Preparatory School of Medicine. The exhibit was one of many Bronzeville residents could see during “Opening Closings.” | Rachel Hinton/Sun-Times

For Linda Thomas, who taught at Overton for 20 years, its current state is disappointing. Her old kindergarten classroom has caution tape barring the door.

“Nothing was advertised, no one said anything to us,” Thomas said of Overton’s 2013 shutdown. “I don’t know why it looks like this, I don’t know why we weren’t informed.”

Developer Ghian Foreman, who bought the building in December 2015, said he has attended several community meetings about plans for the building. The exhibit was part of a plan to “temporarily occupy the space.”

“I’ve involved [the community] in the conversations about the building’s future, but I understand that this is an emotional thing,” Foreman said. “I wanted this to be something that still touches the people in the community and that the entire community could profit from.”

Foreman said he plans to turn the building into a tech incubator and has 15 prospective tenants lined up, though no deals have been finalized.

“If it had any more sense maybe we could just let it go,” Thomas said. “It’s like a death in the family, if the person had a long illness, you can understand it.

“But when there’s no rhyme and no reason . . . it just hurts.”

Linda Thomas, who taught at Overton for 15 years, gazes on an old mural at the school while touring the building. | Rachel Hinton/ Sun-Times

Foreman said he’s in the process of getting the building national landmark status, and there are plans to have people tour the space soon. Though the art exhibits were only up Saturday, he said that he would continue to try to make a space for the community.

“Each building that CPS closed will come back to life, it might just be a different iteration,” Foreman said. “This art and incubator is Overton 2.0. Maybe, 50 years from now, there will be an Overton 3.0, but we need to come together as a community to make sure that they’re successful.”