Binding Books, Binding Community |Carol Ng-He

The goals I have for the students in my Arts & Community Development class are four-fold: 1) to gain an understanding of the historical development of art activism, particularly in Chicago, and connect the history of activist movements to the present; 2) to engage with an existing organization and/or community in the city to explore the use of art in addressing social issues; 3) to develop necessary skills in conceptualizing and delivering project proposals centering the community needs; and, 4) to increase the readiness to work as a professional teaching artist in different communities upon college graduation.

The last visit to the Hull-House Museum and the related class project described in my last post fulfilled the first and second goals. As an effort toward the third and fourth goals, I took my class out of the classroom again to explore local bookmaking related community projects. This time, a little further from our campus to North Branch Projects in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago.

North Branch Projects is a storefront space that runs independently as a community bookbinding facility. The purpose is to “provide an outlet for exploring the creative process in a neighborhood where few resources for the arts exist.” Since its opening, North Branch has been offering free bookbinding sessions for people of all ages. Through collaborative handmade bookbinding it encourages dialogue between participants, and literally binds the community together.

Enhancing social cohesion and fostering a supportive environment are both important elements of North Branch. To fund this “Community Binding” project in part, North Branch sells custom-made books and related items from the bindery. The binding, thus, goes beyond the space and into other parts of the community while promoting art to a wider audience.

On a November afternoon we met with Regin Igloria, the creator of North Branch. During our previous trip to the Hull-House Museum, we learned that Ellen Gates Starr, a co-founder of the Hull House Settlement and a major social activist figure in the late 19th century, was also a bookbinder; she used her bookbinding to support the work she did as a labor organizer, as well as taught bookbinding to the Hull House residents. Drawing this historical connection, and referencing our last guidebook project sprung from the Hull-House Museum visit in which the students re-interpret the museum’s artifacts, the trip to North Branch Projects aimed to give a much richer exposure to the students about urban art activism today in different part of our city.

Albany Park, where North Branch Projects is currently located, shares many similarities with the then Hull House Settlement on the Chicago’s south loop neighborhood: a high percentage of immigrant population, a diverse ethnic demographic composition, predominantly working class, accessible to community services and amenities. Like the multicultural performance art happenings in the former Labor Museum at Hull House, it also has its own famous Albany Park Theatre Project.  This multi-ethnic, youth theater ensemble produces plays based on the real-life stories of Albany Park’s teens and their experiences of immigration and other social issues. Albany Park has a rich culture that has yet been discovered by many people. In sharing why he chose Albany Park as the base of the North Branch Projects, Regin tellingly stated his personal relationship with the neighborhood given he was brought up there.

More importantly, he felt discontented about the polarization between “white cube” gallery culture celebrating exclusively individual trained artists, and community art projects making rather traditional public art work such as murals.  Regin wanted to create a space where people in both of these worlds interact and dialogue with one another. Binding community through bookbinding seemed to make the best way to achieve his goal.

During our visit Regin demonstrated for us how to create a pamphlet binding and stitching. Folding, measuring, cutting, stitching, binding…each of these meticulous steps made a book and also reminded me of how small steps can build a big community.

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