by Bridget Esangga
It’s a sunny September day in Chicago, and SAIC alum Albert “Bert” Stabler (BFA 1997, MA 2003) is marching with his fellow Chicago Public Schools teachers on the second day of the teachers union strike. Stabler is standing at Monroe and Dearborn holding a sign he made from cardboard and masking tape that reads “PEDAGOGUEGORY” on one side and “EDUCOERCION” on the other while a chorus of voices chants “Hey, Hey—Ho, Ho—Rahm Emmanual’s got to go,” behind him.
Stabler is an art teacher at Bowen High School, a low-income neighborhood school on Chicago’s Southeast side. The area is plagued by violence and home to several “brownfields,” or properties contaminated with hazardous substances. He sees the disempowerment and racism that students in underserved communities face in their daily lives and uses art to give a public voice to those struggles.
Under a collaboration with Mike Bancroft and his students in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, Stabler and his students worked on three projects. For the first project, titled Piñata Factory, students made hundreds of papier-mâché piñatas, purchased emergency blankets, and created labels for the blankets during the months of November and December. Just before Christmas break, they placed the piñatas under I-94 overpasses, behind chain-link fences erected to keep out homeless people or people needing shelter from the winter weather.
“We threw a big pile of [piñatas] over the fence to show what wasn’t there, which was people,” says Stabler. “We distributed emergency blankets as well, in little packets, around the site.”
The collaboration continued with memorial altars commemorating loved ones and friends who had been lost to the gun violence prevalent in Humboldt Park and Southeast Chicago. Students made papier-mâché objects, painted them black and wrote on them in white paint. The objects were assembled into altars and distributed in public places along Chicago’s North Shore suburbs.
Piñata Factory’s third project was inspired by the brownfields near Bowen High School. Stabler, Bancroft, and their students created a large installation of translucent, fifty-gallon barrels cast in packing tape and lit from within. The installation included ceramic bones and flesh organs to draw attention to and educate the community about the health problems caused by the area’s toxic soil. The collaboration is now on hold while Bancroft works on another entrepreneurial project with teenagers, but may continue in the future.
When asked what he hopes students take from these projects, Stabler says he hopes his students—who suffer from the emotional and cognitive problems and traumas of poverty—are able to have a different experience with art and use it as a new way to approach the world expressively.
His desire to become a teacher was a direct result of his interest in social issues. As an undergraduate at SAIC, he was inspired by public art, social activism, and interactive work. He was involved in student government, organizing events around materials, and helping to start the school’s recycling program.
“Following that, I thought the way to continue that kind of work in a paying capacity would be to be a teacher,” says Stabler. After working as a freelance art teacher, he returned to SAIC and earned his Master of Arts in Art Education. The program taught him to think about schools as a gateway into a community.
“I reacted to that in such a way that I went out and found young people who were doing art outside of school and found a way to critique school in their lives if not their art, and that was something that meant a lot to what I was thinking about and writing about at the time,” says Stabler.
In addition to his collaborations with students, Stabler’s art practice includes writing for several Chicago publications, including Newcity, Proximity, and AREA Chicago. Some of his latest writing focuses on projects he has done about Jon Burge, the Chicago police commander convicted of perjury in regard to suspects tortured under his command, and coincidentally also a graduate of Bowen High School. Stabler’s documentation of prison jumpsuits will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture at the Sullivan Galleries.
As for his students, when the teacher strike ends and they return to the classroom, they will work on pieces for an antiviolence show at the South Chicago Art Center as well as kinetic artwork and a project examining military.