Exit Here: Jim Duignan’s Sewer Drawings

by Jim Duignan and Matthew JS

Matthew JS: This exhibition revisits the Sewer Drawings. I wonder if you could begin by sharing the initial circumstances that led to their creation?

Jim Duignan: In the mid 1990s, artist Michael Piazza and I were looking to land our specific, idiosyncratic practices through some sort of space that could provide us, individually, time to work out some questions and allow our subversive actions to gradually build as we sought out a language for our work with others.

I was occupying an abandoned school at 48th and Damen (1995) to work out a plan to author a community-specific arts curriculum for middle school students who would be part of a new experimental school. All the students had been removed from their previous schools for offenses ranging from gang involvement to boredom. I spent the summer with a handful of the youth who were not at all interested in being part of a new experimental middle school, and I invited them to hang out with me in the large, empty school studio. It was the site of aA school that served the children during the height of the Chicago Union Stockyards before its closure in 1971.

SkyART artists making rubbings in 2019

Images courtesy of Jim Duignan

Michael was working his way into the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) as an artist-in-residence. The youth jail did not have a residency program nor was it at all interested in the very tricky idea of an artist guiding projects with incarcerated youth. Michael’s work would be seen as too conceptual and overtly relational to their understanding of an artistic practice.

As Michael began to initiate a residency, I simultaneously began putting in place the components of the Stockyard Institute, a platform for building relationships with the arts. My first visit to the JTDC was memorizing the maze of institutional hallways, very much like the schools I knew well, beside the sound of the closing steel doors, security checkpoints and searches, which would increase over the next few years.

I walked the exterior of the building before Michael arrived and was taken by how many holes there were in the street surrounding the building. Holes, with cast iron sewer covers that have fascinated me since my childhood in Chicago. These holes led to the lake and along rivers, clear portals to our city’s underground.

Had I thought of being confined, these holes conjure up mystical ideas that bring a sense of hope that possibility encourages. Stories of escape and underworlds, forbidden channels toward open space and points along the path to stop and breathe, to leave markers and warnings for others who may find a way down to sub-Chicago. [We were inspired by] books like the Count of Monte Cristo and All Quiet on the Western Front I read in high school, the age of most of the boys in that day room. Books that championed a sense of banding together as one, seeking to recognize and capitalize on each other's strengths and what it takes to escape something overwhelming.

We shared stories of escape cautiously as a guard stood near, and the naming of classic literature perfectly filtered our intention that was about providing hope in a desperate moment. This was early in Michael’s residency and the beginning of many days, we only hoped. I was making drawings in my mind as I had for as long as I could remember of escape routes, and trails, underground gathering spots and the notion that Chicago had one million access points that no one uses other than insects and fishes. I was drawing in my brain, quietly, as I looked at the boys, a diagram that indicated how I would escape. A perfectly reasonable skill I crafted long ago out of a blend of desperation and curiosity in entering areas that are off limits. I recall the hum of the building and the disarming vibration that felt intentionally disarming to children. I thought of the sound of the water washing past deep below our feet. We were getting acquainted and, like Michael, I was assured of the young people’s situation in an institutional space lit with fluorescent lights and under the watchful eye of more individuals than we could see.

MJS: What were some of the first artworks that you, Piazza, and the young men collaborated on?

JD: Michael and I collaborated in ways that were in support of the other as we had specific contributions to each other's practice that worked well for us. It was often quieter and in service to the larger project. Michael supported me with text as he was the reader and built the language within the artworks, which was his particular gift. I loved photography, sound recording, and poetry. We complimented each other where often our contributions were unrecognizable. Photographing Michael in an action was equal part content and future documentation that would find its way to some kind of publication. I had an audio recorder where we captured the ambient sounds of the facility, shuffling feet, and large groupings of keys dangling from the guard’s belt, and that impossible hum, all in an effort to provide a score for some aspect of the installation Michael would create on his own with the youth. We were fond of capturing sounds and images that would come into play through our thinking and that would be modified towards a final work.

The initial conversion in that day room was about hatches and exits and the literary references from classics produced a vast amount of ideas without an object. The conversation swirled with examples, necessary tactics and strategic requirements of mind and body to move through the underground of Chicago. It immediately surfaced as a metaphor and had some promise within the actual architecture of the city and we knew those paths and tunnels, drains and water systems were still there. We and Michael, in particular, never did that project but moved forward to a host of projects that were guided by the youth. That is the entire point of working alongside them, to include them in everything as collaborators. The sewer project was never produced beyond the conversation and my fascination with the city’s sewer system and those beautiful cast iron plates would appear when the time was right.

Image courtesy of Jim Duignan

Image courtesy of Evan Jenkins

MJS: There’s the famous story of Piazza helping a number of the youth win free memberships to the Art Institute of Chicago by submitting their artwork to a citywide contest, and the problem of being able to utilize their winnings (attending the museum) generated the idea of escaping through the sewer system.

JD: Yes Michael won the tickets to the Art Institute for a visit with the boys from the detention center. The piece itself was the letters that went back and forth explaining the situation and the impossibility of changing the rules after the decision was made. It was brilliant and magnified the limitations of both institutions.

MJS: After this period, the image of the sewer grate can be seen as a recurring motif in your work. I’m thinking specifically of Austin Walking Tour (2004), done in collaboration with Piazza and Rosie Presti as well as local youth, to turn found urban infrastructure (including sewer grates) into readymade or assisted readymade sculptures. A manhole cover seen in the walking tour is specifically titled Painted Mandala. What did it mean for the sewer grate, previously an entry point to a route of escape from the conversations with the youth from JTDC, to now be considered in spiritual terms?

JD: As a kid I would lay my ear on the sewer cover in the summer. It was cool and I could hear the water and imagine zeroing into something. Hell, I just wanted to get down there. That may have always imbued a spiritual or magical property by its shape and beauty and simplicity and invisibility. It has all the makings of a philosophy. It may be the origin of my need to use the material of the city, creating markers over time. I am very familiar with the materials of the city as they played a part in my history here. I was born and raised in Chicago and have been looking at these grates for 60 years. That's my spiritual sense of the object.

MJS: The sewer grate, at this point, is not only an entry point for escape, but a spiritual marker of where one is in the most literal sense, connected to a whole network of things greater than one’s own being. This conversation is bringing me back to a piece we’ve discussed a handful of times, John Cage’s A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity (1978). The drawing and score was composed by randomly selecting locations around the city of Chicago. What you’re doing, however, is magnifying and raising the individual experience of one’s place within their geography and connecting it to through the seemingly random, subterranean network of the sewer.

JD: Cage opened up the idea of the content of work that inevitably shifts towards thinking. Often by how he revealed what was missing or inactive or how the viewer’s expectation was interrupted or implied. There was a circularity in the final experience of the work that could never completely communicate the various actions accumulated along his process. Cage’s work activated something significant in my early thinking about using the city, mapping experiences and signifying traces that extend and magnify phenomenological experiences. The work changes with me as I accumulate years.

MJS: When did you start working with the youth at SkyART? JD: On this project, it began in the summer of 2019. Artist Sabrina Huchthausen joined me at their facility, and I shared the story from the youth jail and we set out to the area around 91st and Exchange and began building these drawings.

MJS: What prompted the return to the sewers as content with this group? And how did this end up manifesting in drawings?

JD: I was invited by Illinois Humanities who selected seven Illinois artists to create work on incarceration. I went back to the JTDC, a formidable site of activity, all orchestrated by my friend and collaborator Michael Piazza. Upon visiting and walking the periphery of the jail on Hamilton, Ogden, Roosevelt and Taylor, identical to my first visit there, I began photographing the fifty sewer lids to map an outline of that 25-year-old story Michael and I and the boys shared. The story that moved between Michael and I was in a kind of shorthand that included slow facial gestures, acknowledging in the other, the obvious sensitivities to the reality of the boy's situation as confined and how any part of our conversation may be recognized as an encouragement to them in an endless array of probability.

Those early conversations with the boys were about mobility, looking long out of their residential sleeping quarters, references to time travel, or drawing a footbridge across Lake Michigan. Michael and I as fathers managed the private heartbreak of their confusion, and they were young and vulnerable and the heavy weight in the space was what we simply wanted to distribute somehow or diffuse. Peeking into an underground appeared to possess all the opportunities to move about the city safely and not be heard or seen, an engineering feat of layering a parallel Chicago below the other one. This threw me into an endless cache of material from all that stirred in me that was equally as poetic and as it was practical. Michael and I certainly thought of escape and had many literary and cinematic references to breaking free of confinements. Those ideas were already in our work.

Illinois Humanities paired me with SkyArt which was ideal for me and I worked with a group of interns at 91st and Exchange. We used that community to build a suite of large drawings, satisfying soft chalk rubbings, of the sewer lids surrounding the SkyART facility. The drawings were pinned to the interior walls of the workspace to solicit what these works stirred in the interns as their images that would begin to crystallize as ideas. Handmade drawings of portals as the conversation illuminated known influences, crop circles, mazes and traps, imagined and very present, visual metaphors. The circuitry of the mind and the patterns of the city. The downward spiraling of tolerance and personal safety and the prospects of a future that requires a focus no one is yet prepared for. Those swirling incantations of young people, hopeful as stresses mount. The mandala surfaced as encapsulating all the elements of a true self, of those stressors and of a hope these youth knew how to access.


Jim Duignan is an artist, forming the Stockyard Institute in 1995 as a civic, artist project in the Back of the Yards community of south Chicago. Stockyard Institute was influenced early by community artists, revolutionaries, local activists, and radical teachers who explored the community as sites of contest and considered the social and civic forms of public engagement as much a part of practice as they did their life. Duignan is a professor of Visual Art in the College of Education at DePaul University in Chicago where he is the Chair of Visual Art Education.

Recent print publications include; Stockyard Institute: 25 Years of Art and Radical Pedagogy, DePaul Art museum catalog (2021), Back to the Sandbox: Art and Radical Pedagogy, (Ed.) Jaroslav Andel, published Western Washington (2019), Poor and Needy; Baggesen and Brackman, Published by Poor Farm Krabbesholm (2018), Building a Gang-Proof Suit: An Artistic and Pedagogical Framework, for the Chicago Social Practice History Series, (Eds.) Mary Jane Jacob and Kate Zeller, published University of Chicago Press (2015) and No Longer Interested for the Blade of Grass Foundation (2014).

Museum retrospective Stockyard Institute: 25 Years of Art and Pedagogy, DePaul Art Museum (2021), select exhibitions include Envisioning Justice, Sullivan Galleries (2019), PUBLIC SCHOOL, Hyde Park Art Center (2017), Smart Museum (2017), the Chicago Cultural Center (2016), Reykjavik Art Museum, Iceland (2016), Interference Archive, Brooklyn, NYC (2015), Sullivan Galleries, Chicago (2014), Kochi-Muziris Biennial, India (2014) and the Hull House Museum (2013).

In addition, Duignan’s work has been published in The Atlantic Monthly, The Art Newspaper, Prestel Publications (Nick Cave’s Epitome), New York Times, Chicago Reader, New Art Examiner, Chronicle of Higher Education, New City, Chicago Tribune, and many others. His work has been recognized by the Weitz Family Foundation, Illinois Humanities, Artadia (NYC), and the Art Institute of Chicago. He received a B.F.A. and M.F.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago in Studio Arts.