SOUTH CHICAGO — On almost every lunch break for years, Sarah Ward would walk from her tiny art center to get tacos at a tiny grocery store that doubles as a taqueria.
The South Chicago Art Center executive director often stopped along the way to admire a thriving jade plant perched in the window at Ellis Cleaners, a mom-and-pop shop that survived for longer than its chamber of commerce contemporaries after the steel mill closed and the workers moved away.
“It was a beautiful jade plant, just beautiful,” she said. “You know, I have jade all over my house.”
Sometimes, she peeked inside to ask the owner for a clipping of the plant — in Asian cultures it's considered a symbol of prosperity, friendship and good luck — to plant at her studio down the block.
Ward and her art center, where kids stop by after school to avoid the commotion caused by too many rival street gangs to count, surely could use more good vibes.
“He always said, ‘I don’t clip my jade,’” Ward said Thursday.
That never stopped her from stopping by to say hello.
The 14 years she’s spent in South Chicago have taught her a lot of things, including the good that can come from practicing patience, being persistent, offering kindness and wearing a smile, even when you have to force it.
When the tiny art center on 91st Street began to attract more kids than it could hold, Ward started to look for a new studio to help more kids.
Ellis Cleaners, she always thought, would be the perfect place. It’s a big enough building across from the library and the YMCA, a location with potential to become a kid-friendly corner in a neighborhood where such things no longer exist.
Ellis Cleaners died with its second-generation owner, George Eliopulos, who had softened to Ward over the years, and even secretly gave her a clipping of his jade plant. Inside the building, everything remained exactly as it was, pressed shirts, bell-bottom pants and powder blue tuxedos on hangers and the giant jade still in the front window protected by steel gates painted an ugly shade of yellow.
One day, on her lunchtime trip for tacos, Ward noticed the jade plant had reached a spectacular full bloom, which horticulturists will tell you only happens under perfect conditions.
“I saw it as a sign, a good omen. I just had a feeling it’s the perfect place,” Ward said. She called some neighbors and they managed to save the jade plant, which may have triggered the start of a good luck streak.
In the last few years since then, Ward’s “Happy Art Center” has been blessed with an abundance of good will, including donations from the alternative rock band Pearl Jam and the Chicago Cubs that in some ways put the small arts nonprofit on the radar of local philanthropists.
She raised enough cash to buy Ellis Cleaners, gut the place and rebuild it into a dreamy art center with room for giant studios, pottery kilns, a gallery, a place for kids to pop in to make art after school. There’s a room set aside that one day will be a “technology center” with computers, digital cameras and fancy printers. Ward put in a kitchen, where she plans to “bake bread and make soup” for the young artists, some who she knows regularly go to bed hungry.
Ward and her team have already started to get their new home at 91st and Houston ready for kids to start free art classes on Oct. 13, the day after Columbus Day.
The center will open under a new name, Sky Art, which was originally a nod to the Chicago Skyway that spans the rusted ruins of the former steelworker neighborhood.
“We were going to call it Skyway Art, but somebody pointed out the Skyway is what people take to avoid South Chicago. So we dropped the 'way.'” Ward said. “Sky Art also goes with my vision that there are no limits for kids down here.”
With more space, Sky Art will offer more classes for teenagers and young adults, some who stopped coming to the former art center when it got too crowded with little kids.
Ward plans to host an open house once a month so neighbors can see the place and feel welcome, while her team continues to run art programs at 36 locations around the city, including 26 public schools.
In the meantime, the Sky Art team continues to push closer to its $2.5 million fundraising goal — they’re already halfway there — by next fall when Ward plans to have a proper grand opening celebration after the finishing touches are complete; and Mr. Eliopulos’ very special jade plant returns to its spot in the same front window where it once bloomed.
Ward says she’s spreading around tiny pieces of the prosperity, friendship and good luck that the special jade plant symbolizes for Sky Art and South Chicago’s new kid-friendly corner.
“I’ve split jade, and all our donors, everyone who donates, I’m going to give them a chunk,” Ward said.
“It just feels right.”
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