[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #12 in August 2012]
Christopher Drew fought two battles at the end of his life. One, a very public and ultimately victorious First Amendment struggle with the State of Illinois. The other a private battle with cancer, known only to those closest to him.
For 25 years Chris ran the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center and offered free screen printing workshops at the American Indian Center. He was also a constant presence on the sidewalks of Chicago; screenprinting his ubiquitous art patches downtown, at protests, neighborhood art festivals, bicycle rallies, any opportunity to connect in public with people and agitate for the free speech rights of artists and the right to survive by selling their work in thriving public art scenes.
This work garnered national attention in 2009 when he was arrested downtown, in open defiance of the city’s speech-peddler’s ordinance, for selling art patches in public for $1. But rather than simple misdemeanor charges and a small fine, the state of Illinois charged Chris with felony eavesdropping charges, which carried a possible 15 year prison sentence, for audio recording his arrest. The charges were dropped on March 2, 2012. Chris passed away on May 7. The very next day the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals declared the Illinois eavesdropping law “restricts far more speech than necessary to protect legitimate privacy interests.”
At his final public appearance, a victory celebration hosted by Occupy Rogers Park at the b1e gallery on April 7, Chris charged those in attendance to continue the work of the Free Speech Artists Movement and the Art Patch Project:
“Please use the Art Patch Project to make Chicago change. Bluntly put, I am dying and the Art Patch Project needs new energy.
The Art Patch Project is a win-win concept…. Artists have been using the Art Patch Project to protect our stolen rights with growing awareness, establishing a foundation to build on.
The fact is we have less right to survive by our art in Chicago in public than most places of the world. And we have a First Amendment guarantee in this right. And we are not fighting for it. We have given it up. We have given up our most basic right. It is your duty to change this.”
A small core group met with Chris weekly until his death and have begun organizing and skillsharing with friends, neighbors, and anyone inspired by Free Speech Artists Movement. “As long as we are here, he is still here,” wrote Lew Rosenbaum in memoriam, “remember that he is still here, the next time you see another artist printing an art patch, when you see another art patch on a book bag or a jacket.”
The Art Patch Project is also collecting the many online videos and articles, testimonials and tributes, and is planning a series of events and fundraisers. Have a story to share about Chris? An art patch photograph? What to help create, in Chris’ words, “Chic. art scenes” on the streets of Chicago? Please visit www.artpatchproject.org.