Chicagoland Youth Artists Commissioned for Steppenwolf Arts Center

Steppenwolf Theatre Company announced the artist selected for its Loft Teen Arts Project. The visual art competition provides commissions of $1,500-$2,500 to young Chicagoland artists for original new artworks to be displayed in The Loft—Steppenwolf’s first-ever dedicated education space that encompasses the entire fourth floor of its trailblazing new Arts and Education Center, designed by world-renowned architect Gordon Gill of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

The Loft Teen Arts Project commission winners include five individuals and two groups:

Finalist Alyha Khalil (age 16) of Irving Park said, “The theme for this year really speaks to me because a lot of my work revolves around recognizing the identities of important figures that make up the communities that we are in…I specifically chose to spotlight Angela Davis because she is an important figure that advocates specifically for the rights of people of color that are too often undermined and mistreated.” Of Alyha’s work, judge SANTIAGO X remarked, “This proposal is experimental, which I love. To me, this artist is trying to push their boundaries to try to sell something and drudge something up as they examine the theme “the future I see.” Their portraits submitted as sample work are so multi-layered; I appreciate all the sediment and layering present in their work.”.

Alyha is a senior at Senn High School in the Visual arts program. She is 17 years old and part Panamanian, Palestinian, and Jamaican. She was born and raised in Chicago and plans to continue going to art school in the city. She currently works at JCC Apachi Northside Daycamp in the summertime as a Junior Counselor. She’s an artist who focuses on portraiture with oil painting and mainly works around painting and representing black figures’ identities and their importance to their community. She’s been creating art for as long as she can remember, but her first realization that she was interested in art was three years ago when she attended a Marwen art class for oil painting. Ever since then, she’s been creating her art projects and growing her art portfolio collection.

Finalist Liz Olivarez Lyles (age 21) of Lakeview said, “The community I’m interested in seeing in the future is whole, healed, and based in radical self-love. I took inspiration from Sonya Renée Taylor’s book My Body is Not an Apology. As a portrait photographer, I’ve noticed we are often the most uncomfortable in front of the camera. I know for me, looking into the glassy eye of the lens, I have a fear that all my self-perceived imperfections will be illuminated in a picture of myself…as such, my piece “Mya in space” aims to visualize the essence of Sonya Renee Taylor’s concept of radical self-love…Imagine if everyone in our communities had that same sense of self? What if they had that same radical self-love? With self-love comes compassion and love for others, and that’s the world I want to inhabit. Of Liz’s multi-media work, judge Liz Flores remarked, “Liz’s work feels very mythical. She’s creating this different world, and as an audience member when I viewed it, I thought, “yes, I want to be part of that” She’s simply incredible.” Liz is a Rio Grande Valley photographer based in Chicago. She attended The Theatre School at DePaul University as a BFA theatre arts major. This is where she honed her critically artistic eye and direction. She began translating her training into the art form of photography. Liz aims to celebrate the authentic beauty of all her subjects.

Finalists Tia and Tyra Smith (twin sisters, age 20) from Chatham said, “For this year’s theme, we were inspired by our personal history as young artists in the city often traveling from the Southside to northern neighborhoods to participate in programs and events while in high school. We often found ourselves practicing art with adults who were forty-plus years our senior. Therefore, the concept of movement and engagement between different communities and generations is the focal point of our proposed piece. In the future, we want people to deeply explore the places where they are from and engage with places outside of their communities. We want our piece to represent the dynamic interactions across generations, neighborhoods, and communities.” Of Tia and Tyra’s proposed textile project, judge Alex Garcia remarked, “I love the fact that theirs is a different type of work and a different medium. Their perspective and vision are very mature – even bringing in the historical aspect to it. I can’t wait to see what this piece will become and see it on one of Steppenwolf’s walls in the future.”

Tyra Smith is an undergraduate student at Northwestern University, double majoring in theatre and economics. In summer 2021, she was a selected participant of Expanding Diversity in Economics: A UChicago Summer Institute. This past winter, she was a featured playwright in Black Lives, Black Words at Northwestern University. Tyra participated in Cindy Bandle Young Critics at the Goodman Theatre and the Young Adult Council at Steppenwolf Theatre during her junior and senior years at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She placed as a second-round finalist for the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest. She is a published knitwear designer with her first design set to be published in August 2021 in Pom Pom Quarterly Issue 38. She is a recipient of the Gates Scholarship and a Ryan Scholar.

Tia Smith is a writer and artist from the South Side of Chicago and a current undergraduate student at Duke University earning a degree in Theater Studies. She has garnered several awards through her academic and artistic excellence, such as the Benenson Award in the Arts, the AKArama Foundation Inc. Barbara Guilbeaux Scholarship, and the Frank M. Clark/John T. Hooker Scholarship. As a selected participant in the Goodman Theatre Cindy Bandle Young Critics Program, Smith received extensive training in creative writing. In October 2020, Smith’s essay “Not Black Enough: The Cost of a Static View of What it Means to be Black for Black Women Performers” was published in Deliberations: Journal of First-Year Writing. She is a proud alum of Lindblom Math & Science Academy and the Steppenwolf Theatre Young Adult Council. She has been knitting and crocheting continuously since the fourth grade.

BUILD, a violence prevention and youth development organization based on the west side of Chicago. One of Steppenwolf’s community partner organizations, BUILD, will create a piece under the guidance of Ricardo Miranda, Manager of Arts Academy Programs. BUILD, a multi-year partner of Steppenwolf Education, is a violence prevention and youth development organization based on the west side of Chicago that uses the arts, in addition to other engagement strategies, to empower young people. In addition to hosting Steppenwolf artists for theater workshops and performances for the Austin community, BUILD brings youth to Steppenwolf to experience programming on-site. Steppenwolf Education is honored by and proud to showcase artwork by the youth of BUILD in its brand-new arts and education center.

Other finalists include Elisabeth Cervantes (age 18) from Mount Greenwood, Kaleia Maxey (age 17) from Beverly, and Stevia Ndoe (age 18) from West Ridge/North Park. In addition to the winners, the Steppenwolf Theatre announced three runners-up, Ivan Damian, Hailey Murray, and Noor Alkhafaji, who will each receive a $250 cash prize to thank you for submitting their excellent work. The winning artists will create their works early this fall-inspired by the theme “The Future I See: Creating for Community.” Artworks will be unveiled in October and displayed for one year in The Loft. The competition was juried by a panel of acclaimed artists, including Nick Cave, Liz Flores, Alex Garcia, Silvia I. Gonzalez, and SANTIAGO X, collaborating with Chicagoland youth Steppenwolf Education staff.

“We are deeply honored to have the work of these incredibly talented finalists adorn The Loft walls! The commitment of our jury panelists, such as world-famous artist Nick Cave and muralist Liz Flores, helped create thoughtful ideas for the burgeoning partnerships that we look forward to cultivating with each of these young artists. There has been an abundance of joy, positive energy, and learning opportunities involved in this competition. Endless thanks and appreciation to the nearly 150 Chicagoland youth artists who submitted and congratulations to the winners!” – Rae Taylor, Manager of Education Partnerships and creator of the Loft Teen Arts Project.

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