CHICAGO HAS A VIBRANT ART SCENE, which surprised director Stanley Nelson. The Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker known for telling stories about the Freedom Riders, Emmett Till, Wounded Knee, Jonestown, Oak Bluffs, the Black Press, and most recently, the Black Panthers, has trained his lens on Chicago artists. Nelson is directing the premiere episode of “ART21: Art in the 21st Century” on PBS. The new season debuts tomorrow (Sept. 16) and features African American artists Nick Cave, who is known for his Soundsuits and mixed-media sculpture, and Theaster Gates, who works at the intersection of space development, object making and performance.

ART21 explores the the practices of the world’s most innovative contemporary artists. For the first time in eight seasons, each of the four episodes focuses on a particular city—Chicago, Mexico City, Los Angeles, and Vancouver—in an effort to explore the connection to place and the ways an artist’s practice is influenced and driven by where they live and work.

Nelson, a co-founder of Firelight Media, MacArthur Genius Fellow, and recipient of the National Humanities Medal, spent time with and documented the work of four artists, Cave and Gates, along with Barbara Kasten and Chris Ware. “One of the things about doing an art show is that the artists live in different parts of the city than the areas I already knew. We saw the city through their eyes, so I saw Chicago in a very different way,” Nelson told ART21 magazine.


In a preview of his segment on the Chicago episode of ART21, Nick Cave says there is a place of dreaming within his work that is the place he exists in most of the time. | Video by ART21


In the interview with ART21 Executive Producer Eve Moros Ortega, Nelson talked further about directing the Chicago episode. Here are a few highlights:

    What surprised him
    Nelson: “I was surprised at how vibrant the Chicago art scene is, and how people are doing such original work there. All of the artists were very happy to be in Chicago. No one we interviewed wanted to move to New York or LA anytime soon.”

    What was most memorable
    Nelson: “I love the moments when we see them creating—getting to see their creative process, their spaces, to see where they create, that’s where the magic happens. …How does Nick make a ‘soundsuit’? …How does Theaster transform discarded materials into beautiful artworks? To see all of those things with my own eyes, that was most memorable.”

    What he enjoyed
    Nelson: “When you go to an art exhibit, you don’t get to talk to an artist. I really enjoyed the relationships we developed, where I could just talk to them about their art, how they make it, why they make it, and how they became artists.”

    What he’d salvage from the cutting room floor
    Nelson: “I would have loved to have Theaster sing some more. We could have made a whole film about Theaster—it’s hard to grasp the entirety of what he’s doing in the short time we had.”

“I really enjoyed the relationships we developed, where I could just talk to them about their art, how they make it, why they make it, and how they became artists.” — Stanley Nelson, ART21 magazine

In a preview of his segment on the Chicago episode of ART21, Theaster Gates talks about finding value in everyday things like the tar on your rooftop. | Video by ART21


Season 8 of ART21 is hosted by actress Claire Danes and features 16 artists. In addition to Cave, African American artists Edgar Arceneaux (Los Angeles) and Stan Douglas (Vancouver) appear this season. The show will air in four one-hour episodes—Chicago (Sept. 16 @ 9 p.m.), Mexico City (Sept. 16 @ 10 p.m.). Los Angeles (Sept. 23 @ 9 p.m.), and Vancouver (Sept. 23 @ 10 p.m.).

Next week, Nelson will be honored by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He is being recognized for lifetime achievement at the 2016 News & Documentary Emmy Awards on Sept. 21. CT


Theaster Gates is hosting an ART21 screening and conversation with fellow Chicago artists Chris Ware and Barbara Casten at the Rebuild Foundation on Sept. 24.


Following the exhibition catalog “Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth,” the artist released a new volume, “Nick Cave: Epitome,” a comprehensive survey of his multidisciplinary practice that appeared on Culture Type’s Best Art Books of 2014 list. “Theaster Gates,” the artist’s first monograph, made the list in 2015. Next month, Gates is publishing a new book, “Theaster Gates: Black Archive,” which documents his recent exhibition of the same name in Austria.


Season 8 of ART21 features African American artists Nick Cave, Theaster Gates, Edgar Arceneaux, and Stan Douglas. Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson directed the Chicago episode including Cave and Gates. | Video by ART21


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