At Otherwise, we believe in the power of art to bring communities together, ignite important conversations and explore the world around us through a critical lens. We recently found inspiration in Sounding Boards, an initiative that uses public art as a vehicle to amplify diverse voices throughout Chicago.
Technically speaking, a sounding board is placed over or behind a pulpit or stage to reflect a speaker’s voice forward. Through their aptly-named public art initiative, Chicago architecture and design firm Eastlake Studio has done exactly that. We sat down with Sounding Boards co-founders Christina Brown, Principal and Designer, and Camille Hunter, Graphic Designer, to learn more about the past, present and future of this inspiring project.
Using Your Platform for Good
Created in response to the Black Lives Matter movement during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Sounding Boards initially started by bringing together artists and business owners to create murals on boarded-up storefronts, acting as poignant reminders of the ongoing struggle for justice and equality. “During that time, a lot of people were looking for a way to participate in the conversation other than simply giving money — to actually use your hands and minds to create change,” reflects Brown. “As an architecture and design firm, we saw our skills in design and project management as an asset to how this project could come together.”
Within 48 hours of deciding to move forward with the idea for Sounding Boards, Brown and Hunter connected with artists and businesses, launched a website and secured donations to commission the first 25 plywood murals. “A lot of people thought we were crazy for pulling it together so quickly, but the speed felt necessary for what was happening at the time. It had to be in the moment,” says Brown. To date, Sounding Boards has raised over $75,000, shared between the artists and the My Block, My Hood, My City’s Small Business Fund, as well as $50,000 in labor and material donations for the new Sounding Boards Garden at Harmony.
This kind of community effort is ubiquitous throughout Chicago. “It’s about attacking a problem and having the gumption to go for it. So many people pitched in to make it happen, and the energy around it felt very ‘Chicago,’” adds Hunter.
A Full-Circle Moment
Since being removed, Sounding Boards has been searching for ways to reuse the plywood murals while honoring their original intention as public art. “As the panels started coming off the storefronts, we weren’t sure what would happen to them, but we were adamant about them remaining in public view, the same way that they were created,” says Brown. While some murals may be donated to local schools or repurposed by artists, many will become part of an outdoor gathering space for Harmony Community Church in the North Lawndale neighborhood.
Designed by Eastlake Studio in collaboration with general contractor and sponsor Redmond, the Sounding Boards Garden at Harmony came together as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Titled The Available City, the 2021 edition of the Biennial provides a framework to connect community residents with architects and designers to revitalize urban spaces throughout the city. “The opportunity to work with the Biennial was a lightbulb moment. It came full-circle — Eastlake Studio would design a space using the Sounding Boards murals, bringing them to a community that inspired a lot of what was happening at the time,” says Brown.
Fueled by a mission to facilitate opportunities for wellness and revitalization in Chicago, Eastlake Studio previously partnered with Harmony to update their historic sanctuary to be ADA compliant. “It’s called Harmony Community Church for a reason — it is very much about community there. It feels good to help an organization continue their mission, especially one that’s so integrated into the community,” remarks Brown.
Filling a vacant lot on Harmony’s property, the Sounding Boards Garden will incorporate the original plywood murals to create a semi-enclosed, multipurpose space for Harmony’s congregation. Featuring flowers donated and planted by the Chicago Botanic Garden, it will also provide the community with a place to memorialize and remember loved ones lost to violence and addiction.
The spirit of this project reflects that of The Available City — transforming urban spaces with and for the community. “A lot of the work that we’ve done has been in Wicker Park or Logan Square because that’s where we live. But when you’re trying to integrate into neighborhoods that you’re not familiar with, you need someone who will be your ear to the ground to make sure that what you’re doing isn’t for your own benefit or what you think the community needs,” explains Brown. “The collaboration with Harmony has helped us understand that by incorporating residents into the design process, you can create something better together.”
As for the future of Sounding Boards, Hunter and Brown hope to keep the momentum going. “From the start, it was about small ideas that snowballed into more,” says Hunter. “It’s a mixture of what opportunities present themselves, who is willing to step up and what can be done in a space. Sounding Boards came together organically and it will continue to evolve.”
Sounding Boards Garden at Harmony will open with a celebration on Saturday, September 18, from 11am–3pm.