The Loft of the Steppenwolf Theater will present the works of young artists


Most of Alyah Khalil’s oil paintings take her a month or more.

But by July, after hearing about the Loft Teen Art Project at the Steppenwolf Theater and after a week of six-hour painting days, Khalil’s play was over.

“I’ve always wanted my art to be exhibited in some gallery, whether it’s the Art Institute or… something as small as a school art exhibit,” said Khalil, 17. , from Irving Park. “Just seeing my art is really encouraging and inspires me a lot to keep creating. “

In his final year of Senn High School in Edgewater, Khalil was the youngest artist of the five individuals and two groups selected as finalists for the Loft Teen Arts Project. More than 150 young artists from the Chicago area applied, said Rae Taylor, head of educational partnerships at Steppenwolf.

Each finalist received between $ 1,500 and $ 2,500 to produce a piece inspired by the theme “The Future I See: Creating for the Community”. The result: four paintings, two of which used mixed media; two photographic projects; and a textile made by twin sisters as they sent the fabric back and forth from their colleges – Duke University and Northwestern University.

The seven finalist pieces will be on display for one year in the Loft, which encompasses the entire fourth floor of the new theater arts and education center. The Loft is meant to be a “gallery for teens,” a multidisciplinary point of contact between theater and the visual arts, said Megan Shuchman, director of education at Steppenwolf.

The new Steppenwolf Theater Arts and Education Center is located at 1650 North Halsted Street, adjacent to the main hall of Chicago’s iconic theater company.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Steppenwolf began its $ 73 million expansion project in March 2019. The center, which will also contain a 400-seat circular theater and wine bar, will open to the public next month. The theater company hopes to make the Loft Teen Arts Project an annual event, Taylor said.

The Fourth Floor Loft features floor-to-ceiling windows, bright orange elevator doors, an outdoor patio, a fabrication studio, and more. But when teens and young adults come to The Loft, Taylor said she wants them to feel the space is there especially for them.

“A lot of times young people are invited to places too precious to touch because they look so pretty,” Taylor said. “That’s never really the answer, especially when you want to get them deeply involved or just make them feel like they have an agency and a property… on the space.”

Khalil’s painting features a grayscale portrait of Angela Davis, as well as one of the activist’s famous quotes: “We have to talk about the liberation of spirits as well as the liberation of society. Flowers emerge from the painting, stuck where Davis’s hair would be, “to represent that dark hair is beautiful,” Khalil said.

Davis’s sketches already began to fill a canvas when Khalil heard about the teen art project, but hearing the project’s theme “The Future I See: Creating for the Community” only solidified his decision to submit this painting.

“The first thing that caught my eye was ‘the community’,” Khalil said. “Much of my work explores black identities and their place in our communities … It felt like it only made sense to do this piece.”

Rae Taylor (left), Head of Educational Partnerships at the Steppenwolf Theater, and artist Alyha Khalil, discuss where and how students' artwork should be displayed at the Loft.

Rae Taylor (left), Head of Educational Partnerships at the Steppenwolf Theater, and artist Alyha Khalil, discuss where and how students’ artwork should be displayed at the Loft.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Even back in kindergarten, Khalil said she constantly remembers drawing stick portraits of her family and friends. She moved away from painting, however, feeling that she was not good at using acrylic paints. It wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that Khalil experimented with oil painting, which allowed her to bring to life the realistic portraits she had envisioned in her mind, Khalil said. Nine oil paintings make up his completed work to date, along with photographs and other parallel art projects.

Khalil ended up using the same piece she applied with as the one that will be hung in the Loft for next year, but the other finalists have created new pieces, commissioned as part of the project. Each artist was given a “Steppen-buddy” to help them budget for art supplies and create a timeline for completing their projects, Taylor said.

As a finalist, Khalil had the opportunity to be a student curator of the project, helping to organize and maintain the gallery, determining where each piece was to be exhibited. Being a curator is what Khalil aspires to be, she said, something she plans to pursue, attending art school after graduating from high school this spring. Her dream would be to attend the School of the Art Institute, Khalil said.

“It’s really inspiring, just to see my art, to see the process of this to what my future pieces would look like,” Khalil said. “It’s barely the start.”

Other finalists include:

  • Elizabeth Cervantes (18) from Mount Greenwood with an oil painting project
  • Liz Olivarez Lyles (21) from Lakeview with a mixed media project
  • Kaleia Maxey (17) from Beverly with Photography / Collage Project
  • Stevia Ndoe (18) from West Ridge / North Park with a photo project
  • Tia and Tyra Smith (20) from Chatham with a textile project
  • BUILD, a violence prevention and youth development organization based in the western part of Chicago, with group artwork, medium TBD

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