Nina Smoot-Cain

Name:   Nina Smoot-Cain
Artwork:   Library Mosaics
Medium:   Mosaics
Year:   2009




Nina Smoot CainIn her three-decade journey as a public artist and art educator, Cain has given the Chicago area a number of enduring treasures. She has collaborated with a variety of artists, arts organizations, and constituencies on some 20 projects. From her first mosaic Enlightenment, Achievement, Distinction—Infinity (1984), created with teacher Kevin Dixon and students at the Cottage Grove Middle School in Ford Heights, to recent work like Peace by Piece and Remembered Gates New Song (1998-99) with John Pitman Weber and Gallery 37-hired youths at Austin’s Beth-Anne Life Center, Cain has emerged as an important community mosaicist.

Cain’s works have played a formative role in the CPAG-fostered revival of this ancient art form as a community medium. Sunrise of Enlightenment (1987), co-led with Mirtes Zwierzynski at Nobel School, was the first piece to adorn the entranceway of a Chicago public school. Pyramids of Power: The Black Family (1988), with John Yancy at the Henry Booth House, was the first community mosaic on Chicago’s southside.  In 2000, as part of the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation’s “Artists and Communities” program, Cain (along with John Weber) were chosen to lead residents in the creation of a millennium-related mosaic sculpture in Spencer, Iowa. Two of her paintings were part of WGCI’s Black History-themed 2000 calendar. Her mosaic work is included in several books, including Walls of Heritage, Wallsof Pride: African American Murals and A Guide to Chicago’s Murals.

Cain was born in Charleston to parents who taught her that “blessings received must be given back.” In 1955, her seventh grade class was among the first in the state to be integrated into white schools due to court-ordered desegregation. “The Civil Rights Movement shaped who I am politically and what I became,” says Cain. “It shaped my mission in life artistically. I didn’t look to the mainstream art world to define who I was—it wasn’t to chase the dollars. It was to be of service, to participate, and be a helper in the community.”

In 1976, Cain entered the University of Illinois at Chicago, earning a BA in plastic and graphic arts in 1979 and an MFA in 1981. Cynthia Weiss, also working toward her MFA at UIC, brought Cain into the Chicago Mural Group (now CPAG). Cain’s first work for the Group, in 1982, was the painted mural Patterns of Our Past—Reach for Harmony of the Future, which she directed with Jose Berrios in Logan Square.  Cain values her role as an educator. She worked for many years as a residency artist and administrator for Urban Gateways and is currently a roster artist with the Illinois Arts Council and a painting instructor at Roosevelt College.

In recent years, Cain has made a renewed commitment to her studio painting, creating paintings and pastels that combine fanciful surrealistic imagery with insightful portrayals of traditional and contemporary life in African American communities. Her works were shown with co-artist John Weber’s at a gallery in Spencer, Iowa in the spring of 2000. In 2001, Cain exhibited her work in the group exhibition Frames of Reference with other CPAG artists. Cain also participated in a group exhibition of Gallery 37 teaching artists in 2002 and a solo exhibition at Roosevelt University in 2003.  In 2002, Cain created The Griot’s Throne, a cast concrete and concrete veneer sculpture, in collaboration with Phil Schuster and youth apprentice artists from Gallery 37.

Recent public endeavors include serving as co-leader of a design charrette with landscape architects and community artists to develop a plan to enhance the social and aesthetic experience of the east entrance to the Beth-Anne Campus.