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HumanThread Regroups at Bridgeport Art Center

By Casey Cora | April 19, 2013 6:19am

BRIDGEPORT — A few figurines sit on Michiko Kobayashi's desk.

One's a small bust of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the other depicts the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. seated with two children at his knee. Taken together, they're a culmination of the ideas that helped the 52-year-old Kobayashi create her nonprofit group, called HumanThread: Mozart's artful intellect met with the real-word pragmatism of King's message of peaceful action.

"That's me," said Kobayashi, whose organization moved this month from Pilsen into the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St.

The daughter of a owners of a lucrative construction company, the Japanese-born Kobayashi emigrated to America at age 18, inspired by hand-me-down texts of King's speeches and essays.

She wanted to work among the impoverished but ended up in corporate America.

But the pull toward social justice was strong. With her two sons now grown, Kobayashi, a practicing Buddhist, set out in 2010 to create HumanThread with a mission of connecting people through nonviolence-inspired art.

Already, the group has christened their new Bridgeport digs with several events, including a "Persepolis Party" inspired by the the controversial decision by Chicago Public Schools to remove the book from some classrooms and the "I Am" art show, where teens from across the city were asked to create and submit artwork centered on the theme of self-identity.

The art show was an effort "to understand where teenagers of today are coming from and how they understand themselves. It’s been inspiring," Kobayashi said.

Sarah Kazi, 15, of West Rogers Park, earned one of the contest's top awards with her submission titled "Struggle of a Young Marionette" that depicts a female puppet dangling in front of a stage under someone else's control. She said the piece helped externalize the push-and-pull struggles of a life as a teen girl of Muslim faith.

Jeanette Thompson, an artist and art teacher at CICS Northtown Academy, helped curate the exhibit's submissions.

"What always surprises me is the challenges [teens] face. Their family beliefs might be opposed to their own beliefs or they might might be prejudiced [against] because of their race and culture," said Thompson, 40, of Ravenswood.

"I live in a world of white privilege. I don't know what it's like for African-American or Hispanics to be treated inside their community and out, and I think it’s really important to get that out there."

HumanThread also hosts an after-school program called "OpenMind OpenMic" at Hyde Park Academy, Fenger Academy and Kenwood Academy. Kobayashi said the free-form sessions allow teens a platform to express themselves based on a simple premise: "If you have thoughts you have something to say."

That might mean a student reading from particular passage, groups of teens clowning around or a teen just chatting about whatever's on his or her mind.

"It's not a talent show or competitive process. We de-emphasize competition and emphasize compassion," she said.

In their new space, the group also hosts student-led open mic nights, a social justice-focused "One World" speaker series and monthly art exhibits called "Art That Speaks."

It's all geared toward enlightening Chicagoans.

"Our goal is to connect communities and close the gaps, all gaps, we see in society," Kobayashi said.

Looking for more information about HumanThread programs? Visit the official website or email info@humanthread.net