A great length of yard separates South Drexel Boulevard and the 125-year-old, brick-and-stucco coach house: part gingerbread cottage, part crumbling castle.
“We are on the very edge of Kenwood, a neighborhood that I like to call the land of mansions,” says Candace Hunter, a visual artist, collagist, and water rights activist, who shares one of the coach house’s four units with partner Arthur Wright, a fellow artist whose drawings and paintings are largely inspired by jazz music. “There are more mansions in Kenwood than any other neighborhood in the city, and it’s really full of incredible stories about Chicago.”
Muhammad Ali lived on Woodlawn, as did Elijah Muhammad, former leader of the Nation of Islam. The Max Adler residence and the Obama family home are located on nearby Greenwood.
Meanwhile, Hunter and Wright’s coach house was once tucked behind the Mandel mansion, the family behind Mandel Brothers department store and the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall. Hunter thinks the main house burned down sometime in the 1960s, but both it and the coach house have a rich artistic legacy. “I know lot of older jazz musicians who lived in [one or the other],” she says. “Ken Chaney, the jazz pianist, had his grand piano in this space. Napoleon Jones-Henderson, the AfriCOBRA artist, had his studio in the ballroom of the main house. A lot of folks have been here who have done great things.”
Hunter’s cousin eventually bought the property, and she moved in 17 years ago into a “cuter than cute” unit on the north side of the house where the actual coaches were kept. “At the time, I was not a working visual artist,” she says. “I just had really fabulous parties and really fabulous cookouts on the fabulous lawn.” It wasn’t until a few years later, when she decided to make art her full-time vocation, that the coach house became both a studio and living space. Wright came on the scene in 2006 when they were introduced by a mutual friend. “I gravitated toward her because she was an artist who was really doing stuff,” he says. “She was really involved in the community and involved with shows and with other artists, and I was more quiet.”
Now every wall, surface, nook and cranny of the studio is brimming with their artwork, much of which engages with African- American cultural history: abstract paintings by Wright responding to the music of Thelonious Monk; works from “One In a Million,’ his ongoing series of one million pen-and-ink drawings; colorful, large-scale collages from Hunter’s “Service” series, highlighting men and women who served the country whose stories are often forgotten; and various pieces from her touring show “Hooded Truths,’ exploring “the injustices heaped upon African-Americans from their first day setting foot on the shores of the new world.”
“[The coach house] has its own ambiance,” says Wright, who adds that it’s often the sight of workshops and a stop on Diasporal Rhythm’s bike tours.
“It’s a showcase for collectors to come and look at the work,” Hunter says. “I don’t have a desire to hold onto our art. We want to make it and let it go out into the world into somebody else’s house.” v