…graduated from Dunbar Vocational High School on Chicago’s south side. My mother was very intelligent and graduated a year early with aspirations of higher education. As a naturally gifted artist and seamstress, she decided that she wanted to study art. Around graduation, my mother went to my grandmother Dora to ask her if she could help her attend The Art Institute of Chicago. My grandmother’s response was, “you need to go and learn to be a secretary, so you can get a job.” My grandmother was raised by a man born in 1870 in Mississippi into a family of recently freed slaves who had been breed.

My great grandfather Ambrose Nathan was the first of his family to be born free. My grandmother’s family had been sharecroppers just outside of Tupelo, MS. My grandmother traveled to Chicago with her husband and 3-year-old daughter in 1938 to find work and a life free of racial violence and fear.

My grandmother didn’t understand that art is important to survival. Survival to my grandmother was simply feeding your family and keeping them alive.

My mother went on to marry a man who was an abusive alcoholic, battle poverty and depression, have 4 daughters that she somehow managed to send to 13 years of Catholic School for each, work 33 years for the United States Post Office and battle two bouts of cancer, ultimately losing her life to uterine cancer in 1999. During her tumultuous life, she continued to create art. She drew on every napkin, made clay to sculpt out of flour, water, and food coloring and she taught herself how to paint. Even in the trauma of abuse and poverty, my mother’s art was aspirational. She painted images of things she had only seen in her imagination and places she was afraid to visit because my mother was scared to fly. My mother never encouraged her daughters to be artists… but we all are/were. Charlene Stillwell modeled for her daughters that art equals survival. To quote poet Evelyn Tooley Hunt, “My mother taught me purple, although she never wore it.”

My art discipline of choice was storytelling. As early as I can remember I wrote poems and made up songs and stories. I dressed up and created characters. When I went to school I discovered acting in the kindergarten Christmas play. I started taking acting classes at 10 years old and my mother was completely tickled by my love and dedication to my rehearsals, to studying my lines and she would have the most pride in her eyes when she watched me on stage.

In my senior year of high school, I told her I thought I wanted to major in theatre. In her very deep, raspy, smokers voice Mommy responded with, “Well you should.” She had no idea how this thing would turn out for me. She didn’t know if I would be able to eat and live indoors as an artist. She didn’t know if it was possible… but she also didn’t know it wasn’t possible.

Because my Mommy supported my artistic dreams, art has been there to feed me, clothe me, keep a roof over my head, and in my darkest hours (and at the times of my highest trauma) my art was there to save me. Now art is the survival tool I want to give to the South Shore community here in Chicago that helped nurture me.

~~Carla Stillwell