OLD TOWN — When a man was shot and killed right in front of Charlie Branda's home a couple of years ago, the longtime Old Town resident remembers asking herself a question.
"How do I let this impact me? Do I just say, 'This is not my problem, it's the problem for people across the street.' Or is it the whole block's problem?" asked Branda, who lives in an area of Old Town sometimes referred to as Sedville, where drug turf and gentrification intersect.
That's when Branda first came up with the idea for Art on Sedgwick, a nonprofit art organization, where students — and eventually adults — in the neighborhood could take art classes, contribute to exhibits and, perhaps most importantly, collaborate with other people from different backgrounds.
"People circumvent Sedgwick Street because I think people are afraid of affordable housing. But it's really not true that affordable housing is scary," Branda said.
Art on Sedgwick, Branda envisioned, would be "inclusive to everyone in the neighborhood and bring people together who might not interact." It would use art to build community, she said.
Since coming up with the idea, Branda has kept busy, hosting exhibits around the neighborhood, collaborating with local schools, fundraising and forming an artist collective and advisory board.
Now, with the $75,000 they've raised, Branda and her board are gearing up to open Art of Sedgwick's official classroom space at 1429 N. Sedgwick St. The grand opening party will be held Sunday from 1-3 p.m., where there will be a community art project and music. Neighbor Eva's Cafe, 1447 N. Sedgwick Ave., is offering a free cup of coffee to anyone who signs up for a class.
Art on Sedgwick is also aiming to open two additional classroom spaces within the Marshall Field Gardens housing complex across the street, Branda said.
While Branda doesn't have an art background herself, she said it wasn't difficult to find artists in the neighborhood who wanted to help.
"I haven't had to work hard to recruit people because people have been coming to me," she said. "The idea resonated with so many people. I think a lot of people in the neighborhood almost didn't know that they cared about this issue. Of course, we want to include people and get to know people in our community."
To start with, two classes for elementary and middle school-aged students will be offered at the new space: sculpture, as well as painting and drawing. Other subjects like ceramics will join the roster in the coming weeks once Branda gets more community feedback.
The classes will be taught by qualified artists in the community with advanced art degrees. One of the classes for example, will be taught by a University of Chicago graduate student who studied under Theaster Gates, who made headlines for opening a cultural center on the South Side.
In addition to the classes, the space will have walk-in hours, beginning on Saturdays. Those hours will expand in the coming weeks.
Reshape your life
Branda said at the time of the shooting she was inspired by a 2009 book she was reading, "Make the Impossible Possible: One Man's Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary," by Bill Strickland. In it, the author describes how his life was completely transformed when he wandered into a ceramics class in college.
"It sounds cliche but you realize it for the first time. ... If I can make this miracle with clay, maybe I can change the shape of my life," she said.
She said her family, including her husband and two kids, was drawn to the diversity of the neighborhood. They've gone on to call Old Town home for 15 years and have no plans of relocating.
"People tend to [interact] with people who have a similar background as them. There are a lot of opportunities for misunderstanding and fear of people you don't know. As I've gotten to know people who have different backgrounds as me, they're just neighbors who are looking for the same things that I am."
With Art on Sedgwick, Branda hopes to break down those racial and economic barriers.
"The more connected we are, the safer we'll all feel," she said.
Information about classes, including how to sign up, can be found on the organization's website.
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