Creative Mornings: Cheryl Pope

“I realized art was the one place you could ask questions,” said visual artist Cheryl Pope. “Art can go places where you can’t.”

At last month’s CreativeMornings gathering at Savage Smyth, Pope spoke about those questions and the forbidden places they lead. She stood before a packed venue and talked nonstop for her allotted time, her voice calm but lacedCheryl Pope Headshot with passion.

“The role of the artist is to make the invisible felt,” Pope said.

She does this through sculptures, installations and performance pieces — in Chicago and across the country. Her work deals with everything from gender and class to police brutality, political corruption, injustice and violence. She described her projects as “a continuous form of provocative questioning” combined with active listening.

“Listening is the most political act,” she said.

Pope is also a full-time Professor in the Fashion Department at the School of the Art Institute Chicago, from which she graduated with her BFA and MD. When asked why she teaches fashion rather than another form of art, she cited the fact that clothing is the most intimate object we know and the role it plays in identity politics. At her talk, she wore a black hoodie with a tiger and the word ‘lust’ on it.

Barely touching on fashion, Pope instead discussed several, wide-ranging projects she’s done in recent years. One, a series called Just Yell, uses the aesthetics of American varsity athletics to address serious issues plaguing Chicago and the entire country. Picture letterman patches and football penalty flags emblazoned with meaningful messages.

For Just Yell: From Within in the summer of 2015, Pope worked with 30 writers at the Phoenix Military Academy, helping them produce poems reflecting their personal experiences with identity, race, class, love and much more.

One of the beautiful things about young people is that they’re always looking to express themselves, Pope says. She has worked with students (or peer artists, as she thinks of them) for many performance pieces.

For this particular project, once the writers completed their poems, they gathered at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago to perform Walk With Me #3. They each sat at a folding-chair desk and proceeded to carve their poem into its surface. Viewers wandered around, watching them, and whenever a writer felt compelled, they asked a viewer to walk with them.

This act switched up the power dynamic, Pope said. Instead of an adult authority figure asking a misbehaving student to step out into the hall, a student asks an adult to go for a walk. The poet would then perform a spoken piece face-to-face with the viewer, really bringing them into the experience. Afterwards, the poet returned to their desk and continued carving until they wanted to invite a new person on a walk.

The carved desks are now a permanent installation at the Poetry Foundation.

Pope has curated several other pop-up poetry performances — even one at the White House — as well as written word installations. Like when she worked with Kenyon College to produce championship banners emblazoned with statements from young people. One read: “I cannot ignore that I am white,” sparking a campus-wide discussion across the predominantly white school.

She has also created art videos commenting on specific themes like failure and restraint. When asked what inspires her, Pope cited conversation, reading and “being physical with others when language is minimally used or not used at all.”

This is a perfect description of her boxing. Yes, Pope also uses boxing as a kind of performance art. She’s a legitimate boxer who won the Chicago Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament in 2014, but she also uses the physicality of the sport to learn and make statements about human behavior.

“Boxing has become a research space for me,” she said.

For one thing, Pope always boxes in a cheerleading skirt, which has varying effects on her opponents. And she has used the boxing ring to stage poetry performances.

When Pope was done with her CreativeMornings presentation, audience members had the chance to ask questions. Many were visibly awed by her work and conviction. One commented on the social justice aspect of Pope’s projects.

“I always responded to injustice when I was young,” Pope said. “It’s intolerable.”

And then, as if she couldn’t imagine another way to exist: “I just care.”