My friend Chris Drew passed away yesterday. Chris was one of the first people that I met when I moved to Chicago 20 years ago. Back then I was working at the Chicago Reader. Through the Reader’s classified section, I found out about a FREE Screen-Print workshop for artists. I called the number in the ad, and Chris answered. He invited me to come up to the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center to learn how to make screens, and print art on t-shirts. The workshop ran every Sunday afternoon, and some Wednesday evenings. UMCAC was located on the 3rd floor of the American Indian Center at Wilson and Ashland in Uptown.
During my first visit, I learned how to stretch a screen. It was similar to stretching canvas, which I had learned to do as a painter. Emulsion was then applied to the newly created screen and allowed to dry. I was told to bring a xerox of an image that I would like to see printed. Through a process which Chris experimented with and perfected, using vegetable oil rubbed onto the back of a photocopy and then exposing it with a light box, the image was transferred to the screen.
The next step was washing out the screen. Back then, there was no running water on the 3rd floor. Buckets of water had to be hauled up the three flights of stairs and then poured into a pump-powered spray gun. Rapid-fire squeezing of the trigger was needed to wash away the parts of the emulsion that would create the image, before they settled into the screen and were impossible to remove. Another bucket sat under the sink and caught the run-off from the screen washing process. And then those buckets had to be hauled back down the stairs and dumped into the toilet. Need I say that this was a grass-roots organization?
Chris had t-shirts there for sale, pretty much at cost, for artists to purchase. Making screens was one of the ways in which the artists gave back for being allowed to use the space.
My first t-shirt turned out fine: “Earth Dancer.” I was a regular for a while, going up to the workshop 2-3 times a month. Sometimes the printing was a total disaster, other times it went quite well. Chris was a master, and offered his suggestions for how to make things go smoothly: how to pull the squeegee, how much ink to use, etc. In those early days of the workshop, sometimes I was the only one there. Other times there were three or four of us taking turns at the printing station. For a while I found a friend to collaborate with. He made tie-dye shirts and I supplied the images. Most of the shirts I made, I ended up selling to friends, or at small craft events organized by friends. One year, I mustered up the courage to make a bunch of shirts and head down to the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. That year, the location of the festival had changed, and that change affected most of the vendors exhibiting. Not much money was made by any of the vendors, including me. After that, I lost my steam, and sort of “retired” from t-shirt printing.
However, I remained in contact with Chris. He would come into the Reader to place his free ad for the workshop. After a while he would just drop off a dozen postcards at a time for me to add to the free ad bin weekly.
For 25 years, Chris ran that workshop, even up until his health had started to fail. He received small grants every now and then, just enough to cover the cost of supplies, but never received any funding for administrative costs. He was one of the most altruistic people I have ever met. He donated his time, energy and expertise to create a community center for artists to learn, share and grow. He was actually homeless when I first met him, and he crashed where he could, yet he still had the energy and motivation to teach artists what he knew. For free.
I made it to the celebration of Chris’ life and work that took place last month in Roger’s Park, where he lived for many years. I could see that his health was deteriorating, but his spirit was as strong as ever, shining through in the brightness of his eyes. I got to give him one more hug, and then he went on his way…
He was a kind and generous person, with a wicked laugh and a warm smile, a big heart and a warrior spirit – fighting for Chicago artists’ first amendment rights in the courts and on the streets.
I will miss you, Chris Drew. Thanks for being a bright light in the world. Shine, shine, shine…