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Women Imprint: Dorian Sylvain's Story

Written By: Mia Dawn Taylor

This interview is excerpted from the Women Imprint Portrait Series

In this episode Mia chats with muralist, painter, curator, educator, and community planner, Dorian Sylvain.

Dorian was born and raised in Chicago and her practice is still rooted in the southside communities.

Excerpt printed with permission from Women Imprint. Listen to the entire podcast on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Podbean.

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Mia: How did your journey begin?

Dorian: I remember very vividly as a child that there’s a certain ease that I had with art, and I also as a child was very much exposed to art. In the 1960s, art was very much a part of the curriculum still, I mean not in a heavy duty way but certainly much more than you find in schools today in 2021.

When I think about the beginnings of my art, it was just grounded in my environment and so it just was like always there. On the southside you had many Black theaters up and running, experimental Black Actors Guild, ETA Theater, Black Ensemble and later, Black Visions, Kuumba Theater, man we just had a lot going on.

The theaters, in particular, were real hubs of creativity. That’s where you had your poets, your musicians, your costume designers, your actors, your set designers, and your sound technicians–everybody came together in the theater.

When I think about my roots, that’s really where I land, that’s where I learned the most about collaboration, that’s where I learned most about artistic disciplines, and that’s where I learned the most about authentic Black culture. In the Black theater, on the southside of Chicago, in the 80s.

Mia: So would you say that Chicago or specifically, the southside of Chicago, is still a place that you still find most of your creativity or influences?

Dorian: Well, I still live on the southside of Chicago and part of my choice to live here is because of the energy that I get.

Though I still see an abundance of creativity on the southside, not only from folks like me who have been out here for decades making, doing, engaging, initiating art on the southside, but looking at the young folks who are doing art. Looking at the 20 somethings who are out here doing their thing. Creating fashion lines and making a living as musicians and poets and traveling around, honing their craft, the people in their 30s, the artists in the 30s and 40s who have established small businesses and who are creating new conversations around art. So, I’m very very much excited about that.

The other side of that coin is that there’s not a lot of the institution building as was happening in the generation of Margaret Burroughs, Abena Joan Brown, and Oscar Brown Jr.–the generation that I was kinda groomed under. They were really all about building institutions. It was about creating the ETA Theater, creating the DuSable Museum, creating the Southside Community Art Center to answer long-standing issues that Black artists have had with access to education and exhibition, and building these institutions to be there for generations to come.

When you look at the divestment on the south and southwest sides in general, it impacts the arts. When you have divestment in communities, not only are we gonna start seeing more abandoned businesses, more abandoned buildings, more just general blight, higher unemployment, more crime, low participation in the arts, all of those things kinda go hand-in-hand. Because I’m an optimist, I know that it’s just part of a cycle, and so I am very sure that there is a renaissance happening as we speak, in terms of the arts on the south in the southwest side. It’s not what I grew up with but I’m a child of my times like we all are, but it’s going to be what is needed for this generation and so I’m excited to see and be a part of that new wave.

Mia: You were talking about the new generation of the young people, and what they’re doing. You work a lot with children. How did that come to be an important part of your practice and what does that mean to you and what does that mean for the kids that you’re working with?

Dorian: It’s really integral to my practice, it just kinda goes hand-in-hand and part of it is because of the way I was raised. I mean, number one and probably most importantly, my mother was a teacher, and so I kind of grew up with that whole aesthetic of sharing.

My relationship with young artists and young people in general is really grounded in the idea of wanting to inspire, wanting to kind of light a fire under young people, wanting to transfer skill sets, wanting to expose them to even career opportunities that are pretty obscure. When I engage with young people I try to share as much as I can when it comes to that.

Part of the sharing I do also is working side-by-side with young folks, inviting them to work on projects with me, hiring them to work on projects with me, giving them real hands-on opportunities to become better painters, to become better designers, to lead their own projects. Some of the young folks that I work with consistently, I also encourage them to think about being a teaching artist, and many of them move into that teaching track.

Artists were super generous when I was growing up so it’s important to me to also be super generous as an artist to any young artist who displays curiosity, interest, or a passion for art. I feel that it’s kind of my obligation. You can’t do it all but if everybody does a little something, the elder artists such as myself can become bridges for young artists. Bridges to a professional career or even bridges to higher education.

The bridges are not there as readily as people may think. Trying to go from an idea of “yeah I’d love to be an artist” when you’re a high school student, to actually becoming an artist–there’s a journey between there and sometimes you need mentors, oftentimes you need mentors. So formally or informally, I try to be that for young artists.

Mia: What were some of the challenges you faced as a young artist?

Dorian: It was really hard to connect with opportunities. My mother was an advocate of the arts and she always exposed us in a variety of ways. We would go to the festivals in Chinatown and we would go to the Chicago Theater and Drury Lane to see live performances. And The Art Institute–she kept memberships at all the museums. So outside of even just school trips, this is just kind of how my family rolled.

I was always very turned on to scenery when I was at these live performances, you know I almost just ignored the dialogue because I was so engaged with looking at the costumes and the scenery. It was my mother who helped make those connections for me. She would come home and say things like “I went to a really nice community theater the other night with my friends for some event” and at the time she was talking about the Parkway Community Theater on 67th St. where X-BAG Theatre, Experimental Black Actors Guild used to live. She’s like “we need to go down there and meet the director.” It was my mother who took me down there and introduced me to Clarence Taylor, who was running it. That started my whole involvement in Black theater, which opened my eyes to a plethora of artistic careers that I didn’t even know existed! It was those kinds of moments that were pivotal for me, but it was my mother who made those connections.

I fall into that role now. If I’m talking to young artists and they’re like, “Oh, I’m really interested in blah blah blah” I’m like “Oh hey, you need to call such and such, you need to do such and such and try to make that happen’’ because often times making the connections are not difficult, it’s just having that connector that can sometimes be difficult.

Mia: Were there any other people or personalities in your life that influenced you, whether they were artists or just people like your mom who were there to make those connections?

Dorian: When I think of some of the strongest influences I had, it really was from the women in my life. Not only my mother, for example, but I think of some of the strong artists that I was privileged to work with and know, such as Margaret Burroughs. I was very close with the South Side Community Art Center, with the Dusable Museum as a young artist. She was a very generous person but she was a dynamo, oh my God, I learned so much just watching how determined she was, you know she was fascinating to watch. She was a person that just did not take no for an answer. She accomplished so much in her 20s, 30s. A lot of people in their 50s, 60s, 70s can’t say that they started institutions that are still up and running.

But then I also think of another strong woman who has a big influence and that’s Abena Joan Brown who was the executive producer at ETA theater. That was one of my creative homes for many many years as a set designer there.

These women were examples to me of how fearlessness can help move things forward. It didn’t occur to me when I started working in scenery on the southside in the Black community theater that this was kind of like a white male field. I could go to ETA and learn more about set design, in my neighborhood, with my people.

These women, bless their hearts for having the gumption, having the strength, having the vision to create these kinds of spaces. They have influenced countless numbers of people. I can’t even state with enough emphasis, the importance they have served in shaping a creative culture on the southside of Chicago, which has a ripple effect across the globe.

I mean, the people that have come through and been influenced by even just these two women that I’m talking about now, Burroughs and Brown. They have all gone on to continue spreading that energy, that message of Black pride, of Black culture, of Black institution building, they’ve been spreading that word around the world, so the influence is huge, and those two women in particular have touched my life in a huge way and I kind of feel that I’m still part of that mission, part of their vision.

Mia: That’s beautiful. What is your creative process like with your own art?

Dorian: I think I heard Romere Bearden say how an artist is kind of like a whale with their mouth open. They just kind of like scoop it all up. My creative process is very much like that. I compare it to writing. My first draft is just all over the place. I always tell my students it’s like no idea is a bad idea in the beginning, just throw it all out there, whatever comes in your head. But then the hard part becomes whittling it down to really what’s important. I take leaps of faith, and then it just starts coming together.

Mia: My last question. You’re also a muralist so you must know how important public spaces are and how it affects us, can you speak about that?

Dorian: As a public muralist, I think of it from a visual standpoint often times, even just breaking it down fundamentally, it’s about color often times for me, it’s about being able to inject colors into a community, but way beyond that where we really start talking about higher levels of communication, murals have been able to educate, to talk about our history, to talk about our heroes, murals have also been very effective in creating dialogue.

I recently curated a show that’s currently up at the Dusable Museum, that is highlighting the public murals that were created last summer 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. There was civil unrest throughout the world for months and what resulted as businesses were boarding up, is that artists were taking to the streets and they were creating dialogue around what we just witnessed, about what we just experienced, about our collective trauma.

Remember that before that, we were dealing with Covid, with the shut down of our businesses. So, there was a lot to talk about in the Summer of 2020 and artists and non-artists used this opportunity and used those boards to dialogue, to share, to try to engage in maybe even some collective healing. Messages such as “We will be OK” or “This too will pass” or my boys and I, we did a mural on the Hyde Park Art Center right after COVID hit that said “Stay Home, Make Art.”

These kind of conversations artists can initiate and the public picks up on, so it’s super important not only from the beautification standpoint because we we must acknowledge that there’s a lot of psychological trauma when you live in a neighborhood that is full of blight, people need beauty, people need to see color, people need their spirit fed, and when art is removed from our experiences, it’s reflected in our quality of living.

So we as artists must make sure that we continue feeding our communities with whatever our medium is, for me it’s paint. We have to be about the work and most of the creative workers that I know are about the work of sharing their art to heal, to inspire, and to help our communities move forward where we all desire the highest quality of life we can afford.

If hearing music in your neighborhood is what lifts people, then I hope that the musicians in that neighborhood rise to the occasion and make sure that that happens, festivals, all those things are important to feed us, to bring us together.

So yes, I’m very committed to public space, very committed to creating spaces of dialogue and spaces of camaraderie, spaces where we can just gather and just be happy about being together. Public art can often be the center of those types of activities.

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