“Your traumas can become the vehicle in which the art can become manifest.” Southside Reflections on Art and Healing

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #15 in December 2015]

Nature vs. Nurture, by Brian Sykes

Jayne Hileman

We met when you were an Art & Design student at Saint Xavier University, where I teach. I was surprised and saddened when I heard you would not return the next year. But you did come back, despite this setback, a year later, and you completed the program as an outstanding student and accomplished artist, in 2014. Would you explain the trauma you went through when you took a year off from college?

Brian Sykes:

The moment that changed my life forever happened when I coached football for Trumbull Park[1] in 2008. The teenagers I coached ranged from 11 to 13 year olds. It was my first time coaching and I was a bit nervous. I wondered how could I make an impact on these kids and would they even bother to listen to me? As time went on that feeling went away. I began to develop a close bond with the players and they really opened up to me. The daily topics were not just about football anymore, it was about how do we navigate the very life circumstances that we were born into. I make emphasis on the future because the place where I coached had seen more than its fair share of gang violence. I think that when children are exposed to such violence and the presence of death, their thought process is so much deeper than the normal teenager. They actually have to think deeper because at an early age you must first learn how to survive and then if possible entertain the idea of “living.”

It seemed every game we played we lost because they had yet to understand the true definition of teamwork. As a coach, you work every week to instill within players the need to have camaraderie…  Finally, the teamwork Coach Louis, Coach Sims, and I preached every week started to come together. We still lost, but they finally learned what it felt like to really play as a unit, relying on each other to score their first points of the season. These points were scored by our team captain, whom most of the players looked up to. He started to learn the responsibility of leadership, he gave them hope that they could be winners. I saw a focus in him that I only saw glimpses of before this moment. After the game was over they were excited, hopeful, and began to build the faith necessary to win games; possibly even a championship.

It was the call received the next morning that literally broke my soul. That morning, I got a call from coach Sims that our team captain was shot that night at a corner store as they were buying candy. My world had been destroyed, I had lost my little brother… I felt that every encouraging word I had ever given our players had been a lie. How could I have let myself become hopeful, knowing that death was ever looming; as some of my own childhood friends had died in a similar way. I collapsed in a corner in the school hallway. I had no more energy or life to give. I had only the fire of burning memories and a dark silence to console me…

The greatest gift we can give to our youth is the promise that they can have a future.  We teach our youth that have a right to live because their life has a purpose. I now questioned this notion, but at the same time I gained my purpose after dealing with his painful loss. Even my artwork has been greatly inspired by his life. I feel I owe him, more than I could ever explain. I now dedicate my work to changing the conditions in which black youth grow up in. Changing the way we think about ourselves and exposing a past that has long been hidden from us. Every time I interact with youth I think of him. I think about giving them faith to live through the day and helping them to realize their purpose to change their future. Through my faith in God and creating art is how I purge the pain from my sometimes-weighted soul. I leave you with the words our team captain said to me after the last game he played, “Coach Brian I believe now, we don’t have to lose anymore, we can actually win. It’s not hard like we thought, we are not losers. I see what you were trying to tell us, I believe coach.” And so because of him and some of my other friends lost to gun violence, I believe too.       

Jayne H:

How has your visual art-making (and/or music) helped you recover from trauma ?

Brian S:

Music and the visual arts provide a safe haven for my thoughts and pains. It is the place where I can fully tap into the conflicts of my life and express them without the fear of being judged. Through these tools I find that I am healed because I have been allowed to release myself from the mental constraints we all go through. The most rewarding thing for me is when my work is seen or heard by others who identify with my life’s struggles. Only last year was I able to come to terms with the deaths of many friends from gang violence. This closure only happened through working on my art series “Inner-City Madness.” It also gave me a reason to live knowing those dear friends who died were a part of me and that I should tell their stories. The way I can honor them is through the expression of my heart, hoping to spread the same love to the world that they had shown me.


Jayne H:

Does the support of a community, like the St. Sabina Community, help your development as an artist, and does the support of a community help you heal from trauma in your life. If so, how?

Brian S:

The St. Sabina community has done very well in housing one of the greatest up and coming organizations I have ever been a part of which is Donda’s House[2]. They are a family dedicated to pushing our often-times forgotten youth to achieve excellence. Me personally, they have encouraged to push further in my artistic pursuits. They have provided me with much advice in how to protect your art and worth as a young Black artist. They emphasize the thirst you have to have to become a success, all the while maintaining your integrity. They reiterate that your traumas can become the vehicle in which the art can become manifest. Your trials and tribulations are not your weakness, but can be wielded into your strengths. They speak to us students and volunteers as if we were relatives; which reinforces the closeness that is desperately needed within inner-city communities. They have truly been a blessing because coming from the South Side of Chicago, we never thought any such opportunities would ever come our way. Meeting famous artists to question their outlooks on life would not be possible without Donda’s House. They are a reminder that dreams truly can be tangible through hard work and dedication to changing others’ lives as well.

[1] A Chicago public park located at 2400 E. 105th Street.

[2] For more information please see http://www.dondashouseinc.org/


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