To stop at the unassuming storefront and walk through the doors of Tangible Things is to immediately allow all the senses to become immersed in a wealth of African culture, a beautiful myriad of spirituality and an epicenter of free expression that may occasionally change in its outward display but is constant in its welcome and the knowledge to be found even browsing the extraordinary face masks, intricately crafted earthen wear, magnificently rendered artwork celebrating Black bodies, stunning jewelry fashioned from the elements, and the aroma of incense that calms as much as it enlivens.
Chances are, even before walking onto the store, customers will meet co-owner Dr. Nancy Jackson standing outside just to meet and talk with the people of Bronzeville. She embraces humanity with an exuberance matched only by her profound knowledge of the depth of its nature.
Behind the counter, Jackson's co-owner and partner, Gwen Pruitt, is hard at the business of creation, whether for an innovative project called Tangible Tees which takes any image a person chooses and transfers it to a T-shirt, finishing a lovingly detailed custom oil painting ordered by clients who want the chance to see themselves, a loved one or a friend rendered in a way that is totally unique, or turning the passionate colors and sublime images that are her art into a clock face.
Pruitt has an empathy that is prodigious and immediate. When Windy City Times arrived at Tangible Things three years after its December 2014 opening, Jackson was at a meeting, so Pruitt was on the spot. Yet she was happy to talk candidly about the lives which brought the two together in not only physical and emotional love but a labor of it.
However, she would not finish the discussion without offering a sage session during which she gently offered instruction on how to shed the tensions of an unsettling week.
"Nancy and I were working together on some projects," Pruitt said as she recalled their meeting six years ago. "She was involved with schools and I did art work in the schools and shared my knowledge and experiences with at-risk high school kids. She asked me out for dinner. I got to know her and the rest is history."
"It was really Nancy's idea to open the store," Pruitt added. "She always viewed my art as something special. I viewed her work in the same way. She's a historian who had all these pieces of African art and she wanted to showcase them and share information about them with the community. It also gave me an opportunity to share the paintings, sculptures, jewelry, stained glass and woodwork that I do."
One of the original goals of Tangible Things, transformed from the torn-out remains of a former T-shirt shop, was to partly become a community café.
"We used to have a bar up front," Pruitt said. "We were serving coffee and tea but the city came in and started threatening us. They told us that we had to have certain licensing. They let us stay open as long as we didn't serve food. Back then, I wasn't sure how we would be received but Nancy loves conversation. Even if it is freezing, she will stand outside and draw people in. So people came to hang out. We would have wine and offer classes like grant writing, painting and aromatherapy. The community has been very flexible and accepting because of the variety that we offer to them."
No matter what their heritage, sexual orientation or gender identity, that community will also find unconditional acceptance within the walls of Tangible Things.
"People can interact with us and equals," Pruitt said.
She and Jackson treasure and honor the support they have received from a neighborhood determined to aid in the success of a Black business; however, Bronzeville is a neighborhood that has changed dramatically since Pruitt's childhood.
"My mother has a big, beautiful sandstone home on 44th and Berkeley," she said. "I remember my grandma taking me on 47th Street, and all those shops and stores. As I grew up, there was a point my grandmother didn't want me sitting on the porch because she was afraid that someone would shoot me. Now there's been another transition. Just recently restaurants that wouldn't even deliver food have just started. We are in the middle of a process of a re-gentrified community."
The country around Bronzeville has shifted as well, but in a far more radical direction. Speaking by phone to Windy City Times, Jackson examined the significance of this moment in history and this year's Black History Month, in particular.
"The average people I'm talking to out here in the community are afraid of what is to come," she said. "Sixty percent are not sure where they are going to be three years from now. Forty percent are excited about the prospect of new jobs and business development."
"What started out as Black History Week is extremely significant and important not only to our store but also our neighborhood," she added. "There are so many African-American families that are involved in the cultural economy of the city of Chicago. This February, at this time, is very important because we came out of a very polarizing election. We are seeing young people getting engaged in very positive ways such as with groups like Black Lives Matter. We are seeing women galvanized. This month is an opportunity for us to shine to those who don't know us, don't believe in us, who don't view African Americans as making the great contribution that we have made, so that they can take a moment to pause and look at us and see that we are the purveyors of culture."
Tangible Things is a deliberate testament to that.
"We are trying to remind people that treasures come in all sizes, shapes and colors and all kinds of origins, locally, from the broader region and through the United States and the African continent," Jackson said. "We present these treasures and opportunities for learning that are outside of the mainstream, outside of the box or a narrow, nationalistic focus."
For more information, visit TangibleThings.net .