For each Stadium Goods Block by Block series featuring a new city, we are commissioning a local artist to design an illustration. Think of it as the "logo" for the city's series. For Chicago, we are excited to feature the work of painter and muralist Langston Allston.
Langston, an Illinois native, now splits his time between Chicago and New Orleans, Louisiana. If you call either home, you've likely seen one of his murals making your fair city a more beautiful and inspiring place. Along with creating the piece you see above, he was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about his artwork and what inspires and motivates him every time he picks up a brush.
First, please introduce yourself. What should we all know about Langston Allston?
I’m a painter and a muralist with strong roots in Chicago. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make a life out of my artwork, without compromising my vision, or the message behind my work for some years now. It’s been encouraging to be recognized for that work recently, and I’m doing my best to be optimistic about where things are going, even through this bizarre year.
When did you first become interested in art, and how long has it been your serious profession?
I’ve been an artist my whole life. I habitually draw and create. I’ve drawn or built something more or less everyday since I was at least four years old, and that’s the energy that really drives my practice now. I’m always working on a few projects at once, some that pay me, some that interest me, some that I’m just having fun with. I guess the switch to a serious profession started when the ones that paid me got to be numerous enough that I could pay my rent.
We’re excited to have you as our illustrator for the Block by Block Chicago “logo.” Tell us about your illustration.
The piece is pretty simple. It’s a group of people trying to build something “block by block.” It’s coming off the heels of a really busy summer. I’ve been making large murals and paintings every day since May or June, which has given me a really great opportunity to explore a new style. I’m using colors that I see in work from artists like Jacob Lawrence—forms and a palette informed by the Black renaissances of the past. I think maybe we’re in one now... or maybe it never ended. Black culture is American culture, or at least it’s the brightest part of it.
What was it like growing up in Chicago? Do you think it shaped you as an artist?
I didn’t grow up in Chicago. I actually grew up 127 miles from Chicago—like not even the suburbs. I grew up in Champaign, Illinois. Chicago was always the creative mecca for me, though. I would ride the Greyhound up there to see art in museums when I was younger, then eventually just to hangout with friends and loved ones. I’ve been blessed to become a part of a really beautiful creative community in the city, and it’s through that creative community that I’ve built a relationship with the city. I’ve painted murals in Chicago, I’ve fallen in love in Chicago, I spent a whole winter living in a squat in Chicago, but I didn’t grow up there.
You also spend time in New Orleans, correct? What do you find is the biggest difference between the two cities?
I live in New Orleans now, and I love it here. The biggest difference is that we don’t have winter, so when everyone I know is bundled up waiting on the train in the snow, I’m gonna be installing a new air intake on my truck in jean shorts.
Really, what’s the biggest difference? I think the pace of the city, and the resources that are available. New Orleans is an amazing place—it’s easy to talk about how beautiful or how inspiring the city is—but the fact is, there isn’t the access to money, to power, to connections with brands or corporations that you see in bigger cities. I wish that we had the money here that exists in Chicago, I wish I could transport some of the opportunities that are available up there down here. There are a lot of fantastic creatives that are working towards that goal here in New Orleans, people like B Mike and Big Chief Demond Melancon, but we have a lot of work to do.
Has the nation’s huge response to police brutality and racial injustice over the last few months inspired you and your art? Have you done many projects as a direct response?
My art has been deeply engaged with topics surrounding state violence since I was young. Sometime between the murder of Kiwane Carrington in my home town, and the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson the entire focus of my studio practice pivoted towards this movement for Black Lives. Every project I do is in direct response to the centuries-long legacy of state violence against black people in the United States. I mentioned previously that the color palette for this piece comes from artists working in previous Black Renaissances. If you look at the social movements that surrounded those artistic moments, police brutality and state violence has always been a central issue. Seeing this struggle get attention in the mainstream is, I think, as much a part of the ebb and flow of history—pulling towards justice… slowly—as it is about the strength of any one recent event.
Over the course of this summer I painted a number of murals on boarded up businesses around Chicago that were meant to inspire people in the most optimistic way I could muster. Those were probably the most direct responses I made artistically to all of the protests and uprisings we saw this summer. The paintings happened in the weeks following major rioting in the city, and were done for people who had put up boards as a defense against the chaos they were seeing in the streets. I wanted to make paintings that spoke to hope and love, because those are the things that I think we started to lose sight of during that time, and I felt like those were really important emotions to put into the streets. My understanding of the role of public art has changed a lot overtime. It’s always been rooted in storytelling, but now it’s very much about telling stories that are easy to read and impactful, that provoke empathy and compassion. Previously, I think I wanted to shock or surprise people, to make a statement maybe they hadn’t seen before. There’s enough shock and fear in the world, I think it’s time to love people and to build our communities around love and empathy.
Muralists have always amazed and fascinated me. Can you tell us anything about how you plan and execute a piece on such a large scale? Is completing a mural a different feeling than when you finish a regular-sized painting?
This is a hard question to answer in text, because the way I do murals is really fast, and really physical. I start from a sketch, usually with markers, then I break down the movement and the shapes in that sketch into just what matters most to me. Murals recently have become about taking information out, and putting just the pieces I think are doing the most work on to the wall. If I’m getting paid for a mural, and I have a lot of time to do it, I’ll usually make my rough marker sketch into a digital image that I can show people to sort of get them on board and explain my thinking. That step is mostly procedural, but for larger work it can really help to scale things out based on landmarks on the wall.
The biggest difference between murals and paintings—my paintings also tend to be pretty big—is that I don't really ever second guess myself, or my design when I’m doing a mural. A painting gets reworked dozens of times before I decide it’s done. Even simple paintings normally get repainted completely before I’m comfortable presenting them. With murals, I generally don’t have the time or the money to make that type of choice, so when I make a mark on the wall that's where it stays. It’s actually a lot more fun because there’s a sense of trusting your body to make the marks, and much less time given to thinking about if they’re good or not.
What other artists inspire you?
I’m inspired by a ton of Chicago artists right now. That’s actually one of my favorite things about working in the city! Sentrock is damn near my favorite muralist in the game right now. Hailey Losselyong does fantastic work and is always pushing into interesting places in terms of design and using unusual materials. David Heo is an incredible painter and he makes these collages that really push you to look deeper at how his marks are made and what each gesture is doing in the work.
There’s also so much incredible work being made in New Orleans all the time. I think one of the best artists in the world is Demond Melancon. I’m waiting to see what he makes that finally propels him into the art stratosphere with Theaster Gates and people like that. My friend Devin Reyonolds just moved out to LA, but his work is truly incredible—like if Thornton Dial painted graffiti.
The fight for positive change in this country is unfortunately going to be a marathon, not a sprint. How do you see art, your own and the work of others, playing an ongoing role in the cause?
I think art is for looking back on mostly. I think it’s important to make propaganda for the movement now, but often I struggle to do that because I want to make paintings. I think it’s important to make artwork that brings hope and inspires love, kindness and empathy, but I think the greatest role of art is reminding us what this moment felt like when we reflect on it in the years to come. I think that’s been the lasting legacy of artists from the past, like my namesake, and like Jacob Lawrence, and James Baldwin. Artists remind us where we’ve come from and what it meant to get to where we are. Artists show us the future they dreamed of, and often it’s the same future we dream of.