West Side arts organization reeling after leader Jon Veal dies at 30
‘We believed that art could be a tool and that if we gave our best, we could leave the world a better place.’ said close friend Jordan Campbell, who along with Jon Veal cofounded alt_Chicago.
Jon Veal was, if nothing else, generous. He had a way of making people smile and, when people spoke, giving them his full attention.
Veal, who helped start an organization that aimed to transform Chicago through art, died suddenly last week due to complications from cardiac arrest, according to his family.
The organization he helped found, alt_ Chicago — pronounced “Alt Space” — announced his death Tuesday. He was 30.
“It was so unexpected,” said Jordan Campbell, a close friend of Veal’s and co-founder of the arts organization. “There were just so many things that we were planning.”
Veal’s passing on Dec. 21 comes just as the organization he helped found was getting off the ground, collecting $350,000 over the past year to hire staff, realize projects and eventually find a permanent studio to replace one the organization rents on the West Side.
That support and stability was a sign of how far the group had come since starting in 2019, when they couldn’t even afford morning doughnuts, as Veal told the Sun-Times in October.
They persisted then, becoming known for their free community markets on the West and South sides and for their flagship venture, “Project Stamp,” a campaign to document the lives of West Siders through portraits taken in neighborhood spaces.
Subjects were photographed sitting in plush furniture, a pose intended to convey a sense of power. “We wanted people to feel special. We wanted people to feel like royalty,” said Veal, who volunteered his own leather armchair for some photos. Campbell took the pictures.
“We believed that art could be a tool and that if we gave our best, we could leave the world a better place,” Campbell said.
Those new funds helped hire a permanent curator for the flagship project, Justin Dwuan Redding, and already they had begun a new phase, shooting more portraits in early December.
“Through his work you can see the love he had for everyone,” Redding said.
The latest series was shot at Veal’s favorite barber shop on West Chicago Avenue in Austin, not far from the organization’s studio in the 5500 block of West Lake Street.
Veal’s focus on the West Side area around where he grew up was deliberate.
“Jon just wanted the West Side to know the same advantages as the rest of the city and to have those kids in Austin get a chance to make art,” his sister, Cartier Veal, 32, said Wednesday.
Leaders at alt_Chicago say it’s too soon to say where his passing leaves the organization.
Alexandria Eregbu, assistant director of education, said the idea behind the group was to create a more intentional way of living on the West Side and Veal, with his dedication to others, led by example.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, he’s going to call you his brother, his sister and give you what he’s got,” Eregbu said.
His passing leaves a great hole, but he laid the right foundations, she said. “His story isn’t over just because he’s not here with us in physical form,” she said. “The right people will be here to carry out what he initiated.”
Still, she’ll miss her friend, recalling how he could strike up a conversation with strangers and quickly move onto a subject like the nature of friendship, as he did on a trip with Campbell and others to a Fulton Market barbecue spot.
That same spot, Green Street Smoke Meats, was where Veal brought his fiancée, Brittney Carolina, on their very first date at the start of this year — and where she was immediately struck by his energy and charisma.
Later, she became impressed by his dedication to her, his faith and the arts organization.
“Everyone has dreams and goals, but Jon would actually take steps to see them happen. Jon was a doer,” she said.
The two were supposed to be married in March, almost a year to the day after that first date. Instead, the family is planning a celebration of life for the middle of February.
In addition to his sister and fiancée, other survivors include his mother, Karen Veal, and father, Joseph Veal.
Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.