Theaster Gates stands in the center of his workshop surrounded by his assistants

Theater Gates in his Chicago Studio, 2013
©Stephen Wilkes Photography

Who is he?

Theaster Gates is a social practice installation artist living and working in Chicago, Illinois. He began his career studying urban planning, and carried out a joint masters in religion, ceramics and city design. Partly thanks to these influences he now brings activism, project managing and urban planning to his work.

Before installations, Gates made pots, and here he explains how this lead him to where he is now:

I spent about 15 years making pots… you very quickly learn how to make great things out of nothing. I feel like as a potter you also start to learn how to shape the world.
How to revive a neighbourhood: with imagination, beauty and art, TED Talk

The strength of his vision has led to exhibitions in major galleries worldwide, and a recent vote by Art Review naming him one of the top 100 most influential people in the art world.

What is social practise?

Social practice can include any artform which involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction. Gates fits into this category because his work is all about engaging locals in social exchange and creating a better environment for them to live in.

Which are his key works?

In the early 2000’s Gates invented Yamaguchi Story, a tale about a Japanese ceramacist. As the story goes Shoji Yamaguchi escaped Japan during the Hiroshima bombings. He fled to Mississippi and fell in love with May, a black civil rights activist living there. In order to create a safe space for his community to openly discuss race, politics and other current issues, Shoji invited the locals to come and eat black soul food off plates he had designed and made for this purpose. Gates named these events Plate Convergences and in 2007 he began staging them himself. Long since creating the Yamaguchi Story, Gates continues to bring cultures together through his work.

Stony Island Bank dilapidated interior before renovation

Stony Island Bank, 2013
©Stephen Wilkes Photography

Gates began what became known as the Dorchester Projects as a reaction to the high numbers of abandoned buildings in hometown, South Side Chicago. In an attempt to revitalise the area he bought a dilapidated building on Dorchester Avenue and did it up. Using what he calls a ‘circular ecological system’, he financed the next project by selling artworks made from the scrap material of his first renovation. Seven years later he has numerous in the area, all funded in this way. Each property follows a unique concept, but is designed to create community hubs with the others. The Archive House holds 14,000 books, whereas The Listening Room is home to 8,000 records. The Stony Island Arts Bank is designed to be at the heart of the Dorchester Projects, with artist studios, a gallery space, rooms for performances and music and a bar. Through this project Gates wants us to imagine a world where culture and community are the end goals of real estate.

Theaster Gates An Overlapping Love 2014

Theaster Gates An Overlapping Love 2014
Image is courtesy of White Cube
© Theaster Gates
Photo: Sarah Pooley 

Much of Gates’ work is characterised by this use of discarded everyday materials. One such object was the tar kettle his father used to heat tar in for roofing, which Gates used to make his Tar Paintings. The results were beautifully simple and rich with family history, ironically going on to be exhibited at the White Cube in April 2015.

My dad gave me good advice. He said: ‘If this is about roofing, you should really treat it like a roof.’ It was like: should we use galvanised nails or copper ones?
Theaster Gates, The Guardian

What the critics say…

The artist who does more outside the gallery than within.
Art Review

As antiquated as the term might be, Gates is a Renaissance man. But renaissance, or rebirth, is precisely what our cities and our politics need.
Mark Sheerin, Hyperallergic

…a civic treasure on par with Chicago’s skyline and downtown museums.
Mayor Emanuel

Gates in quotes…

I am invested in illustrating the possible. So that other people might think: OK, that works.
The Guardian

It’s not really about the material- it’s about our capacity to shape things.
How to revive a neighbourhood: with imagination, beauty and art, TED Talk

I believe that beauty is a basic service.
How to revive a neighbourhood: with imagination, beauty and art, TED Talk