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Theaster Gates presents art installations at Red Line’s 95th Street station

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After hearing out the community, Gates decided a mural wasn’t going to be enough

The final two art installations at the Red Line’s 95th Street station were unveiled Monday morning. The two pieces by artist Theaster Gates are part of the massive terminal overhaul which wrapped up in January.

The final touches on the train and bus station are a pair of tapestries of decommissioned fire hoses and a radio station with a performance space. Gates is an internationally recognized artist who’s had commissions and exhibits across the world, but it’s clear he has a soft spot for Chicago.

“These things don’t happen in a vacuum,” Gates said at the announcement. “It takes a lot of people who believe in art and culture.”

As a Chicagoan, and former CTA employee and the first director of transit arts, the project was incredibly important to him. He credited his six years at the CTA with teaching him skills in bureaucracy that allowed him to accomplish more throughout his career.

“I remember when we were going through the process, it’s a big process, we probably did over 15 community meetings talking to people about what they’d like to see in their neighborhood. And we really listened,” Gates said at the announcement on Monday. “People would say: ‘We want to see clear examples of our people on the South Side. We want to see examples of our future, clear examples of our present. We want to hear our stories all the time.’ And I thought, that’s a lot to deliver in a mural.

Gates envisions the performance space and radio station, “AESOP: An Extended Song of Our People,” set up with a roster of DJs that are invested in black music so that soul, funk, house, and gospel pump through the station. Residents can get a little house music Friday evenings, like Frankie Knuckles, and for the morning commute some Sonny Rollins, he said.

“When I think about the kind of experience I want to have riding the CTA, I kind of want to wake up and hear some Aretha,” Gates said.

When music isn’t playing, Gates wants to broadcast stories from community members in a podcast style. It’s an engaging and comprehensive way to showcase the daily ideas, interests, and stories of South Side residents. Currently, he’s working on finding more DJs and a public partner that can run the storytelling aspect of “AESOP.”

The other art installation, “america, america,” was initiated by Gates’s desire to give the city some of his best work. The piece that acknowledges that the “work of equality is ongoing” and “not carried by one but by all.”

Over the years, a lot of opportunities at museums and to exhibit his work have been elsewhere—so with this piece, there would be a permanent, public display of the type of work that is his “heart and soul.”

“Taking these decommissioned materials—trying to tell a story of the past while at the same time being in conversation with the city and with black people. These works, which are a signature, I wanted to make sure they were present in the station,” Gates said.

Gates hoped to reimagine what a public art installation could be, and with the help of the CTA and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, he was able to launch a project that is the first of its kind. The city’s current administration has overseen 60 new art installations which has more than doubled the CTA’s collection of public art.

When current projects wrap up, about 68 percent of all rail stations will feature artwork or significant architecture. Recently, Carol Ross Barney unveiled the Belmont Gateway’s new blue canopy inspired by Avondale’s lost waterfall.