By Nara Schoenberg
It isn’t always easy to explain what Jane Saks does at Project&, a Chicago nonprofit that supports art with social impact.
Saks recalls a conversation with an official at an organization that delivers life-saving supplies to victims of war and disaster. The official admitted she had trouble relating to Saks’ airy abstractions.
“OK,” Saks replied, but she had a question: “Have you ever had a cultural experience that changed the way you felt?”
The woman recalled how, when she was a girl growing up in Norway, residents of her small village used to keep their windows open on the long, sunlit summer nights. The houses were quite close together, so you could hear one family start singing. Another family would pick up the song, and then the next, until the village had finally sung itself to sleep. Remembering that far-off night, the woman started to cry.
“I didn’t realize how much that influenced the way I do my work now,” she told Saks. The deep feeling of connection with a larger community was very basic to her humanitarian mission.
Saks, who came to national attention as the founding director of Columbia College Chicago’s Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media, an interdisciplinary program that helped launch prize-winning work, is part poet, part activist, part educator and all arts advocate.
“I don’t have an easy noun to attach to my work in the world,” Saks says. “A friend with great excitement said, ‘You know what you are? You’re a cultural alchemist. That’s it! That’s what you are.’ And that’s the first phrase that I thought could actually fit.”
In her new role as president and artistic director of Project&, Saks, 52, is working on an economic equity project inspired by Studs Terkel’s book, “Working,” that includes an exhibition by photojournalist Lynsey Addario and a radio series on NPR.
Saks is also collaborating with visual artist and photographer Hank Willis Thomas, playwright Lynn Nottage, documentary filmmaker Yance Ford and scholar E. Patrick Johnson on projects that address race, justice, gay identity, cultural access and gun violence.
Saks, who launched Project& last year, spoke to the Tribune in the art-filled Logan Square home she shares with her girlfriend, Emma Ruby-Sachs, the deputy director of the international advocacy organization Avaaz.
The following is an edited transcript.
A: Oh, you know, I had lots of visions. (Laughs.) I thought, I should be a civil rights lawyer. Or should I go into human rights? Or should I study this? Or should I study that? And I kind of kept reaching out for very different yet related experiences, and every one of them is at the center of what I do. Whether it was living in Bombay or working for a social service organization or teaching poetry or being a visiting critic at Yale or teaching writing in Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans or volunteering at a runaway shelter or getting involved in gender equity issues or all the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activism I’m involved in, it’s all related. It’s not all in equal measure, but it’s all necessary to what I do in the world and what I hope to keep doing.
Q: How did you get the Columbia College job?
A: It’s interesting because I had actually been asked to apply for a fellowship and to present a project, and the project that I wanted to do, it was really about this cross-disciplinary institute. I didn’t know that Columbia was thinking of developing that kind of institute. That actually happened two and a half years later.
Q: Why not continue at Columbia?
A: The previous administration had a vision and I don’t think the (Belic Stone Institute) fit. I chose to move on with a really wonderful small kitchen cabinet of really great friends and comrades who said, “Let’s talk about building a bigger platform for the work you’re doing.” (Members of the founding advisory board include Exelon senior vice president Sonny Garg, Crown Family Philanthropies board chair Barbara Manilow and OddLot Entertainment CEO Gigi Pritzker.
Q: What’s the connection between art and activism?
A: Art can really challenge us, art can take risks, it can show us our humanity when we don’t see it ourselves. It can help us hear our own voices, and other peoples’ voices, sometimes for the first time. And it can teach us, it can help us experience beauty, it can push us, it can make trouble. That’s why I say art is dangerous in all the best possible ways. That’s what Project& is founded on.
Q: How does that work in practice?
A: I wanted to create an initiative that really talked about what it is to work in America in 2015. I said (to conflict photographer Addario), “You and I should travel across the country and photograph portraits of Americans, and it will really be like revisiting the (Studs Terkel) book ‘Working.'” I enlisted a great colleague and friend of mine, Joe Richman. He’s a radio producer and he and I are going to co-produce a series; we aired our first piece on “All Things Considered.” So this will happen on radio, the exhibition will travel to cities across the nation, and there will also be opportunities to upload your own stories online. (The exhibition is scheduled to launch in late 2015 or early 2016.)
But that’s not really enough. I want to keep pushing out the dimensions of the experience. I said, what if I train people in various professions to be docents for the exhibition? What if the person who guided you through the exhibition was a lawyer or a domestic worker or a miner or a stockbroker? What would that mean to the way you experienced the work?
Q: What do you do when you’re not working?
A: I play the tenor saxophone. I play with some very old men on the South Side.
Q: Blues? Jazz?
A: Jazz. All of the arts are the things I love to do. Poetry, seeing friends, I go to a lot of talks, all that stuff.
Q: Anything else?
A: I’m also a real combination of urban being and really loving the outdoors. We kayak on the Chicago River all the time; that’s something Emma and I do together. For us to get on the river and kayak up and down, that’s something we love. It’s very urban-industrial, so it’s not like being out in the country, but it’s so nice to be psychologically and physically floating.