From clay to community: Theaster Gates on making art from blight in South Side Chicago at TED2015

TED Blog

Theaster Gates speaks at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, Session 7. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED Theaster Gates speaks at TED2015: Truth and Dare, Session 7. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED

“Beauty is a basic service,” says artist Theaster Gates. He brought the audience to its feet this morning during Creative Ignition at TED, as he told the story of how he went from shaper of clay to shaper of cities.

For fifteen years Gates made pots, “which might seem like a humble vocation,” he says. But in this work, “You very quickly learn how to make great things out of nothing.” When Gates’ father retired from roofing at 80, for example, he gave his son his tar kettle. The younger Gates reimagined this low “nothing material” and elevated it, turning the tar into a series of paintings.

Gates then turned his sights to a different material: the crumbling neighborhood of Grand Crossing on Chicago’s South Side. Gates was disheartened by failing houses there — what he calls…

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