Part of a series on CSRPC and Arts and Public Life Artists-in-Residence
By AARON GETTINGER
Brandon Breaux was born in Chicago and raised in a Grand Crossing apartment. At 35, he has received national attention for designing Chance the Rapper’s psychedelic album covers. And this year, he is one of three artists-in-residence sponsored by the University of Chicago Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture and Arts and Public Life.
“I’ve been making art since I was a kid,” he said. He started with portraiture, drawing family members, and took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago as a child. He considered illustrating comic books before hesitating, he said, because of people’s concerns about his ability to make a living doing that work.
“I didn’t choose fine art as my thing,” he said. “I chose graphic design.” He studied fashion design for a year at Alabama A&M University but found life in the South too slow: “I just understood that I needed to be surrounded around competition [and] people who were really good in order for me to really get better.” So he came back home, eventually earning a degree at DePaul.
He did web design to supplement his street performance: dance was his passion since age 14, an “artistic practice that was a little bit louder; more social than being an artist.”
As is the case for many South Side artists, Hyde Park was a refuge, and his dance crew would often practice on Promontory Point. They would perform in front of Abercrombie & Fitch on the Magnificent Mile, where he worked in college. Eventually, Breaux realized he was making more dancing outside of the store than he made in its stockroom.
For all his artistic experience, Breaux said it took time to feel an emotional connection, saying that his early work did not reflect what he was feeling. As comic books and cartoons that influenced him in the 1990s were heavily linked to anime, Breaux took an opportunity to study abroad in Japan, where he supplemented his budget with street dancing and took classes on how the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki affected the nation’s post-war society.
Speaking to survivors led him to be more thoughtful about the art he was creating.
“I find a lot of those things to be more impactful now — where I create from, my thought process, the idea of bringing place-making into my art form,” he said. “The design aesthetic, the way it relates to space, what’s done to space — I love it. It’s considerate.”
For all the ways the Japanese approach to art influenced Breaux’s practice, its content has not. “You travel the world; you experience new things, and you add those experiences to your language and how you speak,” he said. “That’s what I feel like I’ve done anywhere I’ve gone, but I need to tell my story.
“I’m not looking to tell another story at the moment,” he said. “I’m looking to tell the story of Chicago and what’s going on in the city and rewrite some of these sh–ty narratives that exist around the South Side.”
Breaux summarized the American Dream as getting a good job and moving to a nice house in a better neighborhood — a process that leaves many things “unseen.” “The idea is really transforming those associations,” he said, adding that he sees his work as contributing to his community, Grand Crossing, where he returned after his education.
Breaux’s Chicago is not that of the Bean in Millennium Park Bean or the Willis Tower but “of the vantage point of my South Side porch” — of businesses along 79th Street, Harold’s Chicken and Happy Liquor and Food, 7901 S. Cottage Grove Ave., of “landmarks that exist in this space that build [and] start to first create your ideas of the places and the environment that you came from.”
He noted that the “forms transformed depending on what artist handled that work at the time,” contra to consistency in branding, one of the established tenets of graphic design. “Those are important parts of culture that stand out and aren’t always appreciated, and I want to put the focus back on those elements.”
Working on his own terms and having the art displayed in a gallery — “Writing our own narratives as opposed to adapting other ones that have been told” — has proved therapeutic and transformative. Instead of “replacing,” Breaux sees his work as “reframing.”
The Invisible Space, 8550 S. Cottage Grove Ave., which Breaux co-owns and where he showcases his work., exemplifies his interest in expanding narratives that exist around under-served and disinvested communities. It has weekly yoga and meditation sessions and is accessible through the Chi Pizza Pie restaurant, which Breaux designed, that gives five percent of its monthly earnings to local charities.
Breaux is interested in bringing work from his residency to the Invisible Space and people from there to his studio at the U. of C. Arts Block. His project for the year is a newsstand filled with self-generated content and material about the community, reinventing an outdated business structure — and one that was a prominent small business in black neighborhoods — and providing a site for human interaction again.
“I’m dealing with the world in front of me, and that’s all I really can do,” he said. “I can ignore the things that are happening right now. I can address the things that’re happening happening right now, but what I’ve known to do is communicate and try to be a medium for giving thoughts and ideas some kind of texture, visually.”