Inspired by Studs Terkel, a Chicago artist celebrates Uptown heroes on bus shelters

Studs Terkel, who lived much of his life in Uptown, famously did not drive. He rode the bus, south from his home to the WFMT radio studios downtown where for more than 40 years he talked and listened and otherwise explored people because, as he said, “More and more we are into communications, and less and less into communication.”

I knew Studs pretty well and so I can confidently tell you that he would be both intrigued and charmed by a woman I recently met, and not only because she is a wildly creative person but one who thinks of Terkel as a “kindred spirit.”

He would be intrigued by her name, Hana Bleue Chaussette, which is not her real name but the one she has attached to her many professional projects. He would be fascinated by her background, which has taken her from upstate New York to many places across the planet.

She has been here for two decades and her stay has reached a significant milepost with a public art exhibition called “Unsung Heroes of Uptown: Art of People ON the Streets IN the Streets.”

More than two years in the making but decades in the percolating, it consists of acrylic-on-paper portraits of five people that were installed on 30 city bus shelters on May 6 and are set to continue through wind, rain and heat, for at least three months, and then will remain online for keeps. Most are in Uptown, but they are also on bus shelters across downtown.

Born in upstate New York, Chaussette attended Duke University, graduating with a degree in political science. She headed to Washington, D.C., and then on to New York City where she was attempting to break into the theater world when she got a call from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. “I had been making art my whole life and I had applied to the Art Institute and based on my portfolio I was offered a substantial scholarship,” she says. “It was a tremendous experience.”

She loved the school and she loved the city and she fell in love with Studs. “While I was here I just happened to read, not as an assignment or anything, his book ‘Working’ and was so inspired by the way he was able to explore people’s lives that this powerfully permeated the rest of my life.”

After getting a degree from the SAIC, she boldly moved to Japan where, speaking not a word of the language at first, she served as an unofficial liaison for the SAIC. She lived with the family of a doll maker and taught English for various Japanese companies.

In the late 1980s, she was standing in line at the Chinese Embassy in Osaka when she met a scientist named Rao Pingfan. They married in 1990 and moved in with his elderly parents in Fuzhou, a booming city in southeastern China.

There she worked in radio, co-hosting a popular call-in program called “English Teahouse,” though most of the conversations were in Chinese. She also worked in TV, on a film about women in China, aimed to help foreigners understand the country better and to show, “that life in China is not so different from life in the West.” It would take her seven years to finish “Apple Pie and Chopsticks,” a 90-minute-long documentary that was screened internationally to great acclaim.

In 2000, the couple and their son, Joel, came back to Chicago, where his ability to enroll in a public school program for gifted kids compelled them to stay.

With her husband already an esteemed university professor, she tried to get back into TV and radio, doing all she could to get to Oprah Winfrey. Frustrated in that quest, she began taking acting and playwriting classes with Chicago Dramatists and at Lillstreet Art Center, exchanging her volunteer services to attend classes.

When the pandemic came, she created the “Unsung Heroes.”

She found it surprisingly easy to get through to executives at the JCDecaux Group, the France-based multinational corporation best known here for its bus shelters and the largest outdoor advertising corporation in the world.

It was a bit more difficult to traverse city government but she eventually got to the folks at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. One enthusiastic backer was 46th Ward alderman James Cappleman.

So, we now have Studs and we have Jackie Taylor, the CEO and founder of the Black Ensemble Theater; Yman Huang Vien, co-founder with her late father of the Chinese Mutual Aid Association; Terry Abrahamson, who wrote a Grammy Award-winning song, “Bus Driver” with Muddy Waters, and is a writer, playwright and expert on Chicago blues; and K., a library clerk who preferred to remain anonymous, and who lost her 18-year-old son to gang violence but, Chaussette says, “remains one of the brightest lights for anyone.”

Her work is stunning, colorful, and each portrait is embellished with snippets from her interviews with the subjects and links by which you can find more information, text and video.

Of course, Studs Terkel died in 2008, on Halloween. Chaussette did meet him once, by chance, she shared an elevator ride with him. But his shadow remains. “I feel that Studs would have approved of this series he inspired,” says Chaussette. “Especially the idea of bringing art out of galleries and to people on the streets.”

Though this project is marvelously original, “Unsung Heroes” will remind some people of the Tribute Markers of Distinction program. This involved placing 7-foot-tall enamel markers around the city with photos and biographical information about notable Chicagoans. It began in 1997.

“Unsung Heroes” might also bring to mind the Women’s L Project, an idea of a woman named Janet Volk to rename every one of the 141 stops spread along the city’s “L” train lines in honor of notable local women.

Chaussette has been actively traveling to observe her work and will often talk to the people standing or sitting in the shelters that bear her paintings. She loves to talk and to listen, and offers people the chance to be interviewed by her in one of the “Studs shelters.” Some of those interviews she wants to post on the website. She says “I hope to reintroduce Studs’ amazing work to a new generation.” (Which is what author Mark Larson is doing too with his recently published book, “Working in the 21st Century: An Oral History of American Work in a Time of Social and Economic Transformation”).

Another aspect of Chaussette’s mission, she says, is “to encourage Chicagoans to feel more connected to each other and to their community, despite the onslaught of the Digital Age. We could all use more Studs in our lives, especially in such politically divisive times.”

She and her husband live, not surprisingly, in Uptown. He travels a lot, as an international lecturer and one of the world’s leading food scientists. Their 27-year-old son lives nearby. He is a filmmaker.

“Instead of advertising a product, these shelters advertise an idea,” she says. “The idea that we should get to know one another better, celebrate the human spirit.”

You will notice, when you visit Chaussette’s heroes, that the one of Studs does not feature his distinctive face. “I know, I know,” she says. “And that’s kind of controversial but people are more to me than faces and when I think of Studs I think of his red-checked shirt and the tape recorder. I think of his voice, of his ability to celebrate people, to celebrate life.”

More information about “Unsung Heroes of Uptown: Art of People ON the Streets IN the Streets” at