Oldest Church in Chicago Develops Artist Space to Build Community
First Presbyterian Church of Chicago pastor David Black and Logan Center Digital Storytelling Initiative program manager Elizabeth Myles organized the volunteers to help declutter and clean up a room that will be used by the South Side artists.
Courtesy of Max Li
Nestled in the Woodlawn neighborhood is Chicago’s oldest church, so historic that its roots predate Chicago’s incorporation as a city. Located at 6400 South Kimbark Avenue, the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago is building on its legacy of artistic patronage by creating a new space for South Side artists. The church has a long history of being a space for different organizations and individuals, including Martin Luther King Jr.
“Our vision for this church is to be a hub for Woodlawn culture,” said Pastor David Black. “It means we really want to invite people in and allow members of this community to take ownership of the church, to say what they think, what they want to bring into this space, how they envision its use.”
Max Li, the artist-in-residence at the church, earned his MFA majoring in photography at UChicago last spring and discovered First Presbyterian while exploring Woodlawn. Enchanted by the historic architecture of the building, Li started taking photos when Black came out and offered a tour of the church. During the tour, Black explained the church’s mission to support South Side artists.
Li’s form of photography, the tintype, dates from the Civil War era and features a black-and-white photograph etched onto tin foil. Entirely self-taught, Li says he is one of the few tintype photographers in the Chicago area. Li presented his works last October to the church elders, who make decisions for the church, and received an offer to be the artist in residence.
“I really feel like I learned a lot about the art of gathering,” Li said. have meaningful experiences.”
Bringing people together, for Black, shines a light on the vast network of artists across the community. “One of the things I love about South Side arts is that if you connect with one person, you connect with a network of people,” he said.
Through Li, Black met Elizabeth Myles, program manager for the Digital Storytelling Initiative at the Logan Center. Myles graduated from the College in 2020 with a major in Film and Media Studies. Her job at the Logan Media Center is to create programs for Southsiders to learn to tell their own stories using mediums such as podcasting, storytelling and filmmaking.
Having used the church as a space to rehearse with his chamber music group, Myles wanted to contribute to Black’s artistic mission. “It’s really exciting to see how [the church’s artistic space] can grow, and I feel like it definitely fits the work that I do,” Myles said.
Before the volunteers started clearing the space, Black discussed the mission of the church. In the auditorium where Black and Myles hosted the volunteers, the church hosted rap battles and dance groups mixing Africana, south side jazz and ballet.
More recently, Myles, Black and Li worked on renovating a church hall for open-mic nights and other art projects. This involved contacting the university’s community service center and recruiting seven undergraduates to help clean up this space in exchange for lunch and a tintype portrait of Li.
Ivan Messias, a sophomore who volunteered to clean up the space, said Brown“I’m neither a religious person nor a particularly artistic person, but I do believe in the power of community.”
Although this room in the church has always been accessible to everyone, Black wanted to make it a welcoming room. “The first step is cleaning [the room], making it a worthy space,” Black said. “It’s not just like, ‘Oh, here’s a crummy piece you can use if you want.’ But like, ‘Here’s a room that people really liked to make it a beautiful space where we want you to thrive in your arts and creativity and in your businesses.’
Black strives to make First Presbyterian Church of Chicago open to community members at all times. “My long-term goal is to make the church available 24 hours a day for artists to create work, view work, show work, teach work,” he said. “We want to hyper-use this space, want every part of it to be filled all the time, just filled with life and creativity.”
Black also hopes the space will help Woodlawn residents unite in the face of gentrification. “I think the way we make Woodlawn more resilient as it goes through this gentrification challenge is to keep people connected and neighbors to meet. If your neighbor is overpriced and you don’t know it, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Black said. “If you know each other and people talk about what’s going on, there’s a lot of power in that.”