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Earlier this year, Hanna Brictson left Visceral Dance Chicago to form her own eponymous dance company.

FEATURES

The Art of Living

By Ariel Cheung, Thomas Connors, Laura Hine, Jaclyn Jermyn and Andrea Mills

Photography by Frank Ishman and Michelle Reid

11.26.18

These local creators are doing things their own way—from shedding light on the South Side through comic books to redefining the city’s skyline to putting women center stage in the theater world—and we couldn’t be more inspired.

Hanna Brictson
A veteran performer is moving dance in new directions.

“I’m all about gut feeling,” says choreographer and dancer Hanna Brictson, who, this past spring, left Visceral Dance Chicago to strike out on her own, forming Hanna Brictson and Dancers. “I’m nearly 33 years old,” she says. “For dance, that’s old. But this is what the world is telling me to do.” Brictson, who has been dancing for three decades, has already had plenty of opportunities to put her stamp on the local dance community, staging work at Soho House and for Chicago Ideas Week, but her big break was debuting her piece “My Darling” at this year’s Dance for Life fundraiser. The massive work involved 37 dancers in shiny red costumes, grooving to The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.” It was a performance that stayed true to Brictson’s choreographic ethos, being both technically impressive and thoroughly lighthearted. Moving forward, one of her goals is to change how people see dance, noting that she just doesn’t see her friends going downtown to see shows. “I see them at cool spots where they can have a drink and watch dance for a little while,” she says. “I’m cool with that. I can do that.” In the meantime, she’s just happy that the community continues to show interest in her work. “You know you’re doing something right if that’s happening,” she says. “I’m not going to second-guess that.” –JJ

Carlos Tortolero
A pioneer brings art—and more—to his community.

“We want to be a part of the community, not apart from the community,” says Carlos Tortolero, founder and president of Pilsen’s National Museum of Mexican Art. A former Chicago Public Schools teacher, Tortolero’s first instinct has always been to serve the people around him. “Those in the art world said, ‘You can’t have an art museum in a working-class neighborhood,’” he says. “We proved them wrong—and admission is free.” As the country’s first accredited Latino art museum, it features a world-class collection but also acts as a cultural center for the neighborhood, hosting everything from graduations to women’s health screenings. “We want people to know that this is their museum,” Tortolero says. Its annual Día de Muertos exhibition invites guests to leave notes for relatives who have passed; this year’s exhibit included a mural painted by the parents of a student killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “You know in sci-fi movies when people gather somewhere to figure out how to fight the monsters?” Tortolero asks. “That’s the kind of space I think we are.” –JJ 

Activist and artistic director Harmony France is putting women at the forefront of theater—and behind the scenes.

Harmony France
A theater trailblazer evens the playing field.

It’s one thing to notice that the entertainment world is hugely sexist; it’s another thing to do something to right the inequity. To Artistic Director Harmony France, that meant founding Firebrand Theatre to better tell women’s stories. “Last year was the first season, and it just blew up,” says France about the success of the company’s first two musicals, Lizzie and 9 to 5. “We’ve captured a moment we didn’t even know was coming. People are hungry for women’s voices and women’s stories.” France looks for musicals with equity in the number of roles, but also for a female central character. Behind the scenes, a woman stands in every decision-making and creative role. “I’ve never seen people this empowered,” France says. “We’ve tapped into the national conversation.” This season’s Caroline, or Change got early notice from The New York Times, which was a huge boost for such a young company. “I’m an activist, but I’m also a businesswoman, and if you don’t sell the tickets, there’s nothing to produce,” she says. “We wanted to be taken seriously, so we came out of the gate with guns blazing.” –LH

Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill
Architects shape the city in ways large and small.

Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture may be making its mark around the world (think the recently unveiled design for Expo 2020 Dubai’s Al Wasl Plaza), but the firm isn’t sitting still at home. While its plan for the mixed-use Tribune Tower East is skyline-changing, the firm has made big contributions at street level with the recently opened Chicago Architecture Center and The Yard, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Navy Pier venue. Interestingly, for a man whose work is often on a gargantuan scale, Smith says, “I am most motivated by the beauty of nature, the exquisite detail of the smallest objects, the wonder of the universe and its perfect systems, and creation itself.” That sensibility dovetails with the firm’s determination to create buildings that make sense. “A building’s form should be influenced by the building’s intended program and site factors like location, orientation and potential power generation,” Gill says. “Everything within the built and natural environment is connected, so a building’s design should stem from an understanding of its role within that context.” –TC 

Unconventional artist Michael Thompson’s work has been displayed at Goodman Theatre and Marshall Field’s.

Michael Thompson
An artist takes his work to new heights.

Not many artists find their calling by trying to win a case of beer, but Michael Thompson is not like many artists. “It took me a long time to find my way,” he says. “I studied communications, music, all kinds of liberal arts—but I couldn’t latch on to anything. So I moved to the Berkshires of Massachusetts and joined the Volunteers in Service to America.” Serendipitously, this inspired him to enroll at the School of the Art Institute, where he ended up entering a kite-flying competition. The prize? A case of beer. His giant kite didn’t win, but with luck and great connections, similar versions did end up in the lobby of the Goodman Theatre, a showroom at theMart and eventually Marshall Field’s—cascading from the eighth floor down to the first. Today, his kites (which don’t actually fly) are handmade out of bamboo, muslin and paper, and sold through Pagoda Red. He’s garnered a sizable following for the works of art and is still developing his technique with each one. “I’m a lazy commercial artist,” he says. “I do well enough with the kites that there is no real pressure to sell, and it allows me to do other stuff.” Typically that means turning memorabilia from his travels into stamps, paintings, collages, sculptures and memory jugs. “I still haven’t decided what I really want to do,” he says, “so I pursue all kinds of things.” –AM

EVE EWING
A genre-bending author shines light on Chicago.

Attempt to assign Eve Ewing a title, and you’ll end up with so many hyphens, it’ll make your head spin. The sociology professor-poet-playwright-activist-comic book writer has that in common with fellow Chicagoan Gwendolyn Brooks, the subject of Ewing’s 2017 play, No Blue Memories. “I really see Gwendolyn as a role model, not only for her work but for her example of the writer’s responsibility to speak truth to power,” she says. Ewing’s two latest projects hit shelves this fall: Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side ($23, University of Chicago Press) is an analytical take on the 2013 closing of 50 Chicago schools from someone who both studied and taught in the district, while her Marvel comic book series, Ironheart, stars a teenage genius from the South Side. Ewing credits her peers—some of whom she met as a teen with Young Chicago Authors—with nurturing her expansive interests. “With their support, I have the freedom to pursue things that interest me,” she says. “As Walt Whitman said, all of us contain multitudes, and Chicago is a great city for that.” –AC