Recording a Day in the Life of CPS: Artists in Schools

Suzette Bross


Suzette Bross thought she had come up with an idea for an art project that would span one year. That idea turned into an organization, CPS Lives, that is celebrating its 6th anniversary this May. Bross’s organization has expanded and undergone several changes in just a few years, all while finding an artistically civic purpose and developing many connections along the way. Following is CGN’s conversation with Bross as she prepared for a booth at EXPO CHICAGO, as well as some exciting collaborations and celebrations this summer. 

 – GV 


CGN: What inspired you to found CPS Lives?  

Suzette Bross: I am a photographer, and during my career  I have seen the power of groups of artists gathering to raise awareness and make a difference. When I started CPS Lives I envisioned a group of Chicago artists working for one year to make art and highlight the city’s public schools. I was inspired by artist collectives like AfriCOBRA in the ‘70s, which focused on black art movements and racial injustices, and the City 2000 photo project, a yearlong group photography project I was part of, that was formed to document the city of Chicago at the beginning of the new millennium.

Initially I thought of CPS Lives as a yearlong project that would pair Chicago artists with various public schools, giving opportunities to both of these communities. CPS Lives was formed post internet and in the social media age, allowing audiences to see projects as they were created, lending a transparency and excitement to the way work was made. Artists would have the opportunity to make work, engage with students and share stories of area public schools. At the end of the year the artists, teachers, students and families would come together to celebrate the collaboration at a huge party in Millennium Park. 


CGN: So how did the first year go?

SB: Little did I know what I was proposing to accomplish! Chicago is the third largest school system in the country, with around 330,000 students and 650 schools. Our goal is still to be in all schools, but now I realize it will take many years to tell the stories of all our public schools. After six years we have worked with 70 artists and been in 86 schools across 61 neighborhoods. It has been an incredibly interesting and rewarding journey. 


Ludvig Péres, Mozart Elementary School, 2023


CGN: How many schools and photographers are you currently working with? 

SB: The 2023-2024 residency class is made up of 19 amazing artists working with 21 schools. 


CGN: After six years what has impacted your programming the most since you got started? 

SB: We have become a nonprofit. Not only does our organiation provide opportunities for students and artists, we provide a visual historic record about public schools. This became very important when the pandemic hit. Artists such as Matt Siber and Ludvig Péres created work that was specific to that pandemic history, working in empty schools when classes went online and also working with students at home and over zoom to share their experiences. We were able to create a book, Resilience: Chicago Public Schools in a Time of Quarantine, that will forever be a record of this historical time in education. 

In 2020 we worked with BMO Harris Bank to create one of the first murals made with the plywood used to protect the building’s windows during the protests. Lead artists Jeff Phillips and Dorian Sylvain worked with students from over 20 different public schools at the Hyde Park Art Center to create a photographic collage. Marzena Abrahamik’s joyful Michele Clark High School graduation images were the center of the piece, celebrating the accomplishments of these students during this difficult time for them and their families. 


CPS Lives selected Denise Waite (top left) and Chang-Ching “Casper” Su (top right) as 2024 EXPO Chicago Artists


CGN: What do you hope CPS Lives can do for the individual schools, as well as Chicago artists? 

SB: If you look at what our artists have seen and are communicating in their work, you can really start to see what public education looks like today. There are the proverbial warts of course, but there are also stories of joy and hope and day to day life in public schools in Chicago. 

When you give students the opportunity to work with professional artists, it can encourage the next generation of designers, photographers, artists and creative thinkers. Many of our artists are CPS alumni–for example: Denise Waite, Bob Thall and Norman Teague–and welcome the idea of giving back to their alma mater, or they are artists interested in giving back to the schools in their neighborhood. Many credit a teacher who inspired them to pursue the career they have today.

Encouraging students to think creatively will help them succeed in any career path and confidently address future challenges. Students have a choice about where they go to high school, so many CPS schools must compete for students. Each school has a unique culture, and our artists can help schools understand, define and thus promote what makes them unique.

CPS Lives provides local artists with opportunities to make great work with their communities and exhibit around the city, something that’s been very important after the pandemic. CPS Lives also provides schools with the opportunity to be connected to the art world in a meaningful way. 


CGN: Tell us what CPS Lives has planned this season?

SB: We are thrilled to participate in Expo Chicago April 11–14. Our booth will highlight the work of Denise Waite, who worked in her alma mater, Lincoln Park High School, and Casper Su who worked in Haines Elementary. One of the joys of participating in the fair is working with EXPO to bring the students and their parents to the fair and see the students’ expressions as they see their own faces reflected in the art hanging on the walls. 

Our 6th Anniversary benefit party is May 22 at the Arts Club. The public is invited to meet our artists and many of the teachers and principals from our participating schools and bid on unique art.

We are also looking ahead to the 2025. Remember I said one of my original goals was to have a big party with our artists and schools? We are going to do that on the 606 / Bloomingdale Trail to celebrate their 10th annivesary. There are four public schools on the trail, and the 606 connects many Chicago neighborhoods. CPS Lives also provides a way to connect with and see our city, so we’re excited to have fun with them. Stay tuned and join us this spring! 



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