Chicago artist JB Daniel was getting pretty tired of the walk from his house to his studio, studio to his house. House to his studio, studio to his house.
“It felt like such a small world,” he told me.
Not in the sense that you keep running into people you know. Hey! Small world! In the sense that your world has shrunk, lamentably. In the sense that you never run into people you know.
“We’re taking the pandemic quite serious,” Daniel said. “I haven’t had a haircut in a year. Not just for ourselves, but for other folks too.”
Daniel’s work is in and of the public. His art installations appear on Chicago’s streets and CTA stations and vestibules. By October, he was itching to forge out beyond his small patch of Pullman.
He thought about a mantra that kept running through his mind in the spring, when the coronavirus was new and most of the advice around combating it had to do with the frequency and longevity of hand-washing.
“The line, ‘Wash your hands and help each other,’ came into my head,” Pullman said. “I thought, ‘This is a time that humanity has to excel, if ever there was a time.’”
“Help each other,” he thought, would make a great sign. Simple, but profound. Direct, but contemplative.
He did a little research to find where political yard signs are made and found a sign company in Texas. He ordered a bunch, only instead of a candidate’s name or a referendum to be voted up or down, he had the sign-makers write, “Help each other.”
Then he started walking around Chicago, placing them in unexpected places. “Sometimes confrontive,” he said, “sometimes not confrontive.”
He did one a day. One at Promontory Point. One at Ping Tom Memorial Park. One near 31st Street Beach. A friend of his who works for Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, he said, placed one inside Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office in City Hall.
“It became a way to get out into the world and do something,” he said. “It started to feel like I had some kind of small effect on the world.”
One day, shortly before the November election, he went around and removed the political signs dotting the landscape — across parties — and replaced them with “Help each other” signs.
“I can’t tell you what an empowering feeling that was,” he said.
He started noticing photos of his signs popping up on social media. Through word-of-mouth and Daniel’s website, JBDaniel.com, people found out he was behind the signs and started asking how they could get their hands on one or a dozen.
Daniel set up four “Please take one” installations — two on the South Side, two on the North Side — where he would stick a bunch of “Help each other” signs in the ground and then, in front of them, a “Please take one” sign. Now that the ground is frozen solid, he’s mostly just operating and replenishing the “Please take one” installation in Pullman, near 108th Street and Champlain Avenue.
He also started selling DIY “Help each other” kits on his site. For $40, you get 10 “Help each other” signs and one “Please take one” sign to set up in the spot of your choosing. He said he’s sold kits to people in 20 states so far, and given away or installed about 800 signs himself.
I was walking along the lakefront path last weekend and saw a “Help each other” sign poking out of the snow, next to a grove of barren trees, in front of a gray, icy Lake Michigan. I snapped a photo with my phone and put it on Facebook. A friend commented that Daniel was behind the signs, and I called him up to hear more.
“That little pause is everything to me,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh! Look at this!’ The world keeps going by, but people pause for a moment.”
He researches each spot before he places the signs — a wonderful way to gain more knowledge about his city, and a glimpse into what a call to help might mean in that particular setting.
“The ones by the lake always seem to have a wonderful effect for me,” he said. “The horizon line and then this little message. They’re almost like little cathedrals by the lake.”
He’s been heartened to see some of his signs remain in place for months. He imagines people watching over them, taking care to keep them upright and visible. That encourages him to keep doing them.
“They give me a way to interact with the world,” he said.
And they give the rest of us a beautiful little set of instructions, in a time when it’s easy to feel lost: Help each other. Wherever we are.