Photos by Mike Kane for Marguerite Casey Foundation.

Equal Voice

One Woman Uses Her Father’s Art to Support a Chicago Community

March 23, 2020

By Jacqueline Garcia
Photos by Mike Kane

Installations of vintage photographs by renowned photographer Dorrell Creightney are part of an effort to use art to inspire pride in Chicago’s Austin Village neighborhood.

(This story originally appeared in the Chicago-based newspaper La Raza.)

The Austin Village neighborhood of Chicago is often considered dangerous and desolate. But while some residents attempt to leave the neighborhood, others do not.

Among those who stay is Vanessa Stokes, a professional photographer, who years ago discovered a treasure-trove of photographs at her mother’s house. Since then, she has dedicated herself to sharing them with the world.

Stokes’ father, Dorrell Creightney, was a well-known photographer in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And while his most popular images were related to fashion, music and commercials, Creightney also enjoyed taking photos of people in their daily lives.

Creightney was a native of Jamaica and emigrated with his family to the United States in 1954 when he was 18 years old. In 1969, the photographer opened his commercial photo studio, becoming the first person of color in Chicago to own a studio.

After many years of work and a short battle with cancer, Creightney died in 2011.

Stokes collected thousands of photos her father took, which were nearly lost to the world. There may be as many as half a million images.

“When I would go to visit my family, I would see the photos, and I thought there must be a way to bring them back,” Vanessa said in an interview with La Opinión.

She wanted to share her father’s legacy with people.

The images show everything from streets of Chicago to African American culture by way of jazz legends. But there are also a number of photos as simple but detailed as children playing on the streets, women chatting or couples embracing.

It’s like an art gallery. The images are exhibited in order to bring the locations alive. Every day, people are pleased to see a change in the narrative of their neighborhoods.
Vanessa Stokes, leader of the art installations

In 2016, Stokes applied for a grant from Chicago’s Department of Cultural Services. When it was approved, she decided to convert some of her father’s images into giant works of public art, so people could enjoy them.

“It’s like an art gallery,” she said. “The images are exhibited in order to bring the locations alive. Every day, people are pleased to see a change in the narrative of their neighborhoods.”

Twelve images were plastered on viaducts and the metro green line in 2017, the city’s designated year of public art. The images were exhibited on 8-by-6-foot canvases indefinitely.

Stokes said she is proud to see her father’s work shared in this public space, since the West Side, where Austin Village is located, is becoming abandoned.

“More than 250,000 people have left this place because of the bad reputation it has earned through media coverage,” Stokes said. “The neighborhood is 90 percent African American, and people don’t participate in social activities very much.”

Stokes said she is committed to helping preserve her father’s legacy and using the images he took so many years ago for the benefit of the public. She also hopes to change the negative image that Austin Village has, so its inhabitants no longer move away and feel proud of their neighborhood.

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Marguerite Casey Foundation is co-publishing this story, which originally appeared in La Raza, as part of a partnership with ImpreMedia, a national media organization that includes: La Opinión, in Los Angeles; El Diario in New York City; and La Prensa in Orlando.

One Woman Uses Her Father’s Art to Support a Chicago Community

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