A Chicago artist celebrates Uptown heroes in bus shelters

Studs Terkel, who lived in Uptown much of his life, didn’t drive. He rode the bus south from his home to the WFMT radio studios downtown, where he talked and listened and otherwise explored people for more than forty years because, as he said, “We are increasingly concerned with communication, and less and less with communication. .”

I knew Studs quite well, so I can confidently tell you that he would be both intrigued and charmed by a woman I recently met, not only because she is a hugely creative person, but also someone who Terkel would consider a ‘kin’ spirit’.

He would be intrigued by her name, Hana Bleue Chaussette, which is not her real name, but the one she has attached to her many professional projects. He is said to be fascinated by her background, which has taken her from upstate New York to many places around the world.

She’s been here for 20 years, and her stay has reached a major milestone with a public art exhibit called “Unsung Heroes of Uptown: Art of People ON the Streets IN the Streets.”

It was over two years in the making, but it was decades in the making. It consists of acrylic on paper portraits of five people that were installed in thirty bus shelters across the city on May 6 and will endure through wind, rain and heat. for at least three months, and then remains online. Most are located in Uptown, but they are also located in bus shelters on the other side of downtown.

Born in upstate New York, Chaussette attended Duke University and graduated with a degree in political science. She headed to Washington, DC, and then to New York City, where she was trying to break into the theater world when she got a call from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. “I had been making art all my life and I had applied to the Art Institute and based on my portfolio I was offered a big grant,” she says. “It was a great experience.”

She loved the school and she loved the city and she fell in love with Studs. “While I was here, I happened to read, not as an assignment or anything, his book ‘Working’ and was so inspired by the way he could explore people’s lives that it powerfully permeated the rest of my life.”

After earning a degree from the SAIC, she boldly moved to Japan where, initially not speaking a word of the language, she served as an unofficial liaison for the SAIC. She lived with the family of a dollmaker and taught English for several Japanese companies.

In the late 1980s, she was standing in line at the Chinese Embassy in Osaka when she met a scientist named Rao Pingfan. They married in 1990 and moved in with his elderly parents in Fuzhou, a booming city in southeastern China.

There she worked in radio and co-hosted a popular call-in show called “English Teahouse,” although most conversations were in Chinese. She also worked on television on a film about women in China, intended to help foreigners better understand the country and to show “that life in China is not so different from life in the West.” It would take her seven years to finish ‘Apple Pie and Chopsticks’, a 90-minute documentary that was shown internationally to great success.

In 2000, the couple and their son, Joel, came back to Chicago, where his ability to enroll in a public school program for gifted children forced them to stay.

Since her husband was already an esteemed college professor, she tried to get back into television and radio, doing whatever she could to reach Oprah Winfrey. Frustrated by that quest, she began taking acting and playwriting classes at Chicago Dramatists and at the Lillstreet Art Center, trading her volunteer work for attending classes.

When the pandemic broke out, she created the “Unsung Heroes.”

She found it surprisingly easy to reach executives from the JCDecaux Group, the France-based multinational best known here for its bus shelters and the largest outdoor advertising company in the world.

It was a bit more difficult to get through the city council, but eventually she ended up with the people at the Cultural Affairs and Special Events department. An enthusiastic backer was James Cappleman, councilor for Ward 46.

So now we have Studs and we have Jackie Taylor, the CEO and founder of the Black Ensemble Theater; Yman Huang Vien, co-founder with her late father of the Chinese Mutual Aid Association; Terry Abrahamson, who co-wrote a Grammy Award-winning song, “Bus Driver,” with Muddy Waters and is a writer, playwright and expert on Chicago blues; and K., a library clerk who preferred to remain anonymous and who lost her 18-year-old son to gang violence but, Chaussette says, “remains one of the brightest lights for everyone.”

Her work is stunning, colorful and each portrait is embellished with excerpts from her interviews with the subjects and links to find more information, text and video.

Of course, Studs Terkel died in 2008, on Halloween. Chaussette met him once, by chance she shared an elevator ride with him. But his shadow remains. “I feel like Studs would have approved of this series that he inspired,” says Chaussette. “Especially the idea of ​​bringing art out of galleries and to people on the streets.”

While this project is wonderfully original, “Unsung Heroes” may remind some people of the Tribute Markers of Distinction program. This included placing 7-foot-tall enamel markers around the city with photographs and biographical information about notable Chicagoans. It started in 1997.

“Unsung Heroes” may also bring to mind the Women’s L Project, an idea by a woman named Janet Volk to rename all 141 stops along the city’s “L” train lines in honor of notable local women.

Artist Hana Bleue Chaussette’s piece about Studs Terkel in a bus shelter in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood on May 9, 2024. The image, which does not show his face, shows his red-checked shirt and the tape recorder. It is part of her series “Unsung Heroes of Uptown: Art of People ON the Streets IN the Streets.” (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Chaussette has actively traveled to observe her work and will often talk to the people standing or sitting in the shelters where her paintings are on display. She loves talking and listening and offers people the opportunity to be interviewed by her in one of the ‘Studs shelters’. She wants to post some of those interviews on the website. She says: “I hope to reintroduce Studs’ great work to a new generation.” (That’s what author Mark Larson also does with his recently published book “Working in the 21st Century: An Oral History of American Work in a Time of Social and Economic Transformation”).

Another aspect of Chaussette’s mission, she says, is “to encourage Chicagoans to feel more connected to each other and to their community, despite the onslaught of the digital age. We could all use more Studs in our lives, especially in such politically divisive times.”

She and her husband, not surprisingly, live in Uptown. He travels extensively, as an international lecturer and one of the world’s leading nutritional scientists. Their 27-year-old son lives nearby. He’s a filmmaker.

“Rather than advertising a product, these shelters are advertising an idea,” she says. “The idea that we should get to know each other better, celebrate the human spirit.”

If you visit Chaussette’s heroes, you will notice that Studs’ does not show his distinctive face. “I know, I know,” she says. “And that’s quite controversial, but people are more than faces to me and when I think of Studs I think of his red checked shirt and the tape recorder. I think of his voice, of his ability to celebrate people, to celebrate life.”

Learn more about “Unsung Heroes of Uptown: Art of People ON the Streets IN the Streets” at www.hanableuechaussette.com

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