From the Ground Up: Grass Roots Art helps South Side artists grow

If not for the sign out front, Grass Roots Art would look like any other house on a residential street in South Shore. Inside, the atmosphere is similarly homey, with warm greetings waiting for each visitor at its entrance. However, the relative bareness of the building’s rooms reveals its function as a gallery: artwork has replaced the usual furniture. Local artists exhibit and discuss their work here, by appointment or at receptions like the one held last Saturday.

Grass Roots Art (GRA) is just shy of one year old, but for small, family-run galleries, even one birthday is nothing to sniff at. “It feels like a big deal,” said founder Erica Ruth, speaking of the upcoming anniversary (December 7). The gallery was established after Ruth and her family moved into another house and were contemplating what to do with their former residence. Ruth explains, “We could either rent it out, or we could try something really cool and really neat. So we decided to try.”

That decision was also influenced by Ruth’s mother and GRA co-founder Ollie Dantzler. As one of the many artists who had to fit art in between work and family, Dantzler personified a struggle that Ruth hopes to alleviate. She might not be able to make creating art into a lucrative career, but she can at least give artists some of the credit they deserve. As she pointed out, “People sometimes think artists are kind of crazy, and they don’t take them seriously. But I can’t imagine a world without art.”

GRA is more than a space where local visual artists can display their work. The basement also serves as a venue for performing artists, including both musicians and poets. It acts as an intermediary between artists and the community, especially potential buyers. Perhaps most important, the center puts out a newsletter that profiles exhibiting artists and advertises upcoming shows. “Artists are interesting people,” Ruth said. “But only a few of them get any press.” Judging from the positive response it has received, the newsletter has done much to remedy that fact. The mailing list has grown large enough to reach even out-of-town artists, some of whom have expressed interest in displaying at the gallery. It even attracted acclaimed painter and illustrator Rodger Gerberding, whose work will be seen at the GRA’s anniversary reception.

From 2 to 5pm on December 2, this reception will highlight Dantzler’s artistic career. Geberding will join her as part of the Human Installation Series, an innovative exhibit that operates on the idea that, as Ruth put it, “the artist is the true work.”

The latest exhibit at GRA was by an African-American women’s photography collective called Framing Herstory. The works ranged from Marion Jones’ lighthearted “Lil’s Salad,” a vibrant, summery close-up of lettuce, tomatoes and onions, to Penny Lawrence’s more sober black-and-white photographs depicting homelessness on Lower Wacker and Lower Columbus Drives. Many of the artists dropped by during Saturday’s closing reception to talk about the process and purpose behind each of their photographs. Visitors took the opportunity to ask questions about the artists’ choice of camera and color. Several images were digitally edited for colors that deliberately convey a mood, such as Leah Rogers’ “Blue Mystery,” or to combine separate photos, like the noses and lips in Gerri Gibson’s “Black Berry.” Others simply heightened colors or cropped edges, as Raishon Lewis did in “Mississippi Bells.” Some viewers seemed to pick up ideas for their own photographic projects, one valuable result of the interaction between the gallery vistors and the displaying artists.

GRA had a full house of visitors on Saturday, and it seems to be attracting more all the time. So far, only a minority of the visitors have come from the immediate neighborhood of South Shore. However, GRA’s organizers are already planning ways to draw more of those who remain reserved, such as sponsoring activities for kids at a local church. This willingness to approach and feature art from different angles distinguishes GRA from other galleries, and it may ultimately prove vital to its success.

For information on the University of Chicago VIP night, contact GRA at and you will receive a reply with the date and time of the reception.