Continuous, uninterrupted action: Jim Duignan and Stockyard Institute
Jim Duignan is still in conversation with himself. Artist and educator for nearly 30 years, Duignan’s mission is to fill in the gaps. What started as informal gatherings with college dropouts in the Back of the Yards neighborhood has evolved into a lifelong practice focused on a radical pedagogical process. Duignan dubbed his practice Stockyard Institute, a deconstruction of educational and civic conventions.
Today, twenty-five years later, Stockyard Institute remains as in its beginnings, an opportunity for learners to take control of their education and a vessel for Duignan to realize his own socially conscious artistic vision and with a new retrospective exhibition. on Stockyard Institute at the DePaul Art Museum, Duignan takes the opportunity to look to the future as much as he commemorates the past.
Ask someone who has known Duignan for long enough and they’ll tell you that their job is their life.
“I’m sure it started when he was about… seven years old,” said Rachel Harper, co-curator of the new exhibit. “I think he came to earth with that kind of guidance.”
Looking at Duignan’s story, his sense of purpose is hard to deny. Born and raised in Chicago, Duignan spent his early years feeling that school was not designed to meet his needs. A bright and creative child who constantly drew and built in his spare time, Duignan felt disappointed with his elementary school’s poor arts program and uniformed education.
“These experiences in elementary school were horrible, the school did not provide me with some kind of platform to properly interpret my experiences,” said Duignan.
Before high school, much of his creative energy had to come through less conventional means. He found one of his first real learning experiences with the Boy Scouts, or what he affectionately calls his “school of nature”. The Duignan scout leader nurtured his love for nature and he was drawn to raw materials from the forests, which he would use in endless building projects. Most importantly, Scouts was a place where Duignan and his peers could collaborate. As a young boy, Duignan found power in these types of spaces, where he and his friends could think, play, and thrive outside of the stuffy schoolyards. Duignan developed a fondness for playgrounds, parks, and alleys where he and his friends gathered to just be themselves and build their own acquaintances. These places had unlimited potential for him, and they served as a model for what the Stockyard Institute would become.
Duignan would not be able to properly exercise his artistic abilities in a school setting until his stay at Taft High School, where his spirits were lifted by an enhanced arts program and a brand new art building. His outside perspective on education will continue in his adult education. By studying art at UIC, he became aware of the radical leaders of pedagogy, of teaching theory. Jane Addams of Hull House and Brazilian educator Paulo Freire were just some of the many academics whose work appealed to Duignan. In 1995, when approached to develop an arts program for a new college located in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, Duignan already had a very clear idea of the pitfalls present in mainstream school. With his upbringing, as well as extensive arts education, Duignan sought unique ways to approach school issues in a more socially conscious and empathetic manner.
The summer before the school opened, Duignan had the opportunity to meet a group of local dropouts. He insisted on removing the children from school space, instead of locating their group in an abandoned school nearby. Initially, Duignan refused to teach the children, choosing to focus on his own work and give them free rein to chat or engage with each other in any way they saw fit. Over time, this provisional regrouping has established a relationship of trust with each other. The turning point in their conversation came when a child admitted he feared being shot in the back on the way to school. This sparked a conversation among the kids, all of which could relate to fear on some level, and from those conversations arose the concept of the gang-proof suit. Over the following months, the idea for the anti-gang suit, a fictional armor that would protect children from gang violence, was sculpted by these students, born out of conversations about the fears and real issues that children are facing. faced.
In Duignan’s eyes, the group had become a design collective. “I wanted to think of art education differently,” says Duignan. “Like why can’t we do projects based solely on youth questions? It was this idea, that young people should have a voice in creating their own education, that would become an important pillar of the Stockyard Institute philosophy.
This initial project would become a lifelong practice. Duignan’s goal became to empower learners to find what traditional education couldn’t address and help them cope with it in their own way. For Duignan, school systems have missed out on a critical human component of education, and rather than serving the individuality of each student, they have sought to flatten it. After his experience with the anti-gang costume, Duignan chose to continue on his path of transformative education, officially founding the Stockyard Institute, which takes its name from the slaughterhouses once located in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. For Duignan, the fluid nature of Stockyard Institute is what makes it so unique. He discovers the needs of a learner, then gathers the resources, the support and the accompaniment to carry out the project that he can: “I orchestrate things, I put the people who need things with the people. who have an excess, ”says Duignan. So the Stockyard Institute process is very malleable, and often takes many forms, but Duignan will always stick to his method of giving people the opportunity to explore their own needs. If you ask him, he won’t invent his own role in the practice. “It’s not called Jim Duignan’s next art project,” he says. Duignan understands his role within Stockyard as that of an orchestrator, not a teacher or manager, just someone who gives space to others. This lack of hierarchy is part of what makes Stockyard so innovative.
Today, after 25 years of practice, Duignan and Stockyard Institute are in the spotlight with an exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum. The exhibition is a unique experience. The pieces are often less significant in themselves and more representative of a significant moment or idea in Duignan’s practice, less an isolated artistic feat, than a series of totem poles commemorating the great artistic and educational feat that is Stockyard Institute. Duignan insists the exhibition is not about ruminating on the past, but looking to the future of the practice as it heads into the next 25 years. This is best seen in the radio station seated in the center of the exhibit. Duignan and his friends broadcast live every Thursday, communicating ideas live and in the moment, not commemorating a past artistic achievement but existing in the present and thinking towards the future, the exhibition is another example of a space created by Stockyard Institute to explore ideas and respond to needs.
When Duignan looks back on his work, everything revolves around the people and the community, trying to help tackle the struggle in innovative ways. Growing up in Chicago, he saw the challenges facing the city’s residents and constantly fought to solve them. “Jim’s practice is all about relationships and being slow and really taking the time to listen, getting to know both people and places,” said Ionit Behar, Assistant Curator at the DePaul Art Museum.
Duignan hopes that by teaching and collaborating, both at DePaul and in his practice, he will lead more people to become leaders of social change. He’s busy most of the time, always moving to the next thing, approaching new people, looking for the next opportunity to create a new experience. Constantly dissecting the ways in which his community can change. For him, a stagnant work of art is not enough. It is the constant movement of his work at the Stockyard Institute that makes him so effective. Duignan describes his life as “one continuous and uninterrupted action” – his work and his life are intertwined, one and the same, making him and Stockyard unlike any artist, person or practice you will ever meet.