“Chicago’s Opportunity Artist”

Theaster Gates (born August 28, 1973) is a Potter from Illinois, Chicago. He is an artist that has used the success and fame of his works to regenerate and put back into his neighbourhood, a neighbourhood that is typically known to be run down with a high crime-rate and low property value. He has performed this noble act of charity by investing in and renovating derelict buildings, giving them new purpose and social meaning amongst the local community, Gates says “I want to believe there is power in my poverty” (The Guardian. 2017. Theaster Gates: I want to believe there is power in my poverty.)

He started out as an ordinary potter creating clay works learning “how to make great things out of nothing” for 15 years. From pottery, Theaster then wanted to create artwork for people that raised awareness and highlighted significant political and historical events that have happened in America. He began experimenting with new forms of media like old fire hose pipes and other local wastage to resemble some of these historical events relating to black history.

When his father retired at 80 years of age, his inheritance from him was an old tar kettle that he had been using for his small labour businesses like roofing and paving, this was a gateway to new ideas and creations for Theaster. With his father’s experienced skill, Theaster invited his dad to help him create new art with the tar and from new innovative forms of media his studio began to grow, as well as his name.

With the problem of failing property in his neighbourhood, Gates said “is there a way these buildings could be an extension or expansion of my artistic practice.” So his first communal investment was an abandoned house that was unused with nobody living in it, he then renovated it and used it to host exhibitions, shows and lectures. From that more buildings were renovated, an example being the “Black Cinema House” previously the former crackhouse, it was transformed into a place where black cultural movies could be played that had significant meaning to the local people.

Black Cinema House

Theaster believed it was important to create something about the community and to be used by the community. From the success of “Black Cinema House” it outgrew its original building onto a much larger scale building that is now also Gates’ studio and he has even refurbished an old bank into a community hub holding exhibitions, shows and lessons. His name and movement grew more and more with each project and still to this day has projects underway to change his city for the better.

I find Theaster Gates such an inspirational figure, he has looked at a spaces that were unwanted and unused into spaces that have purpose and meaning in a beautiful and artistic way. The fact that he has changed an opinion of his neighbourhood just through his own good doing and work of charity is a remarkable act of noble kindness. I believe it would be great if more designers and architects used this idea of charity and giving back through their work.


TED (2015) Theaster Gates: How to revive a neighborhood: with imagination, beauty and art. Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9ry1M7JlyE




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