It’s the quintessence of Chicago’s arts culture: the city’s knack for bringing together the minds and passions of those from across the world into a mosaic of diverse hues and origins. After all, this is the city where immigrants like legendary architect Mies Van Der Rohe looked upon the skyline and sought to make his lasting mark on it. It’s where millions of Black Americans settled after the Great Migration, bringing us the angry and stirring voices of Gwendolyn Brooks, Thomas Dorsey, and Mahalia Jackson. It’s where actors the world over allowed themselves to be bold and daring, birthing improvisational theatre and thrusting it into the country’s dramatic consciousness.

Elijah McKinnon addressing a Primer audience at the Canvas Event Space.

Elijah McKinnon addressing a Primer audience at the Canvas Event Space.

And it’s from this spirit that Primer has been borne.

For the past two years, Canvas has had the pleasure of bringing the city’s best artists and entrepreneurs together for a night of ideas, culture, and community. The event, known as Primer, got its start through the ambitions and initiative of several local creators, including artist Elijah McKinnon.

“One of the most beautiful aspects of Primer is how it’s grown in such an organic, altruistic way,” McKinnon, co-founder of the event. “It’s the culmination of a lot of different ideas from different people.”

At the heart of Primer are the “creative pitches,” wherein three to five entrepreneurs are allowed five minutes to get up on stage in front of hundreds of attendees in order to showcase their latest ventures and innovations.

Preston Jones addressing a Primer audience within a 360 degree projection mapped Canvas Event Space.

Preston Jones addressing a Primer audience within a 360 degree projection mapped Canvas Event Space.

“The projects are curated to represent the intersection between industry and creative endeavours,” explains McKinnon. “They all come directly from Chicago’s tech and media scene. We’re talking film, music, and various other cultural productions as well.”

The lineup of people and organizations pitching at Primer isn’t just limited to big and widely recognizable names. It also include innovators who are just getting their legs. “We have people pitching projects that they are starting in their basement to folks who are lead curators at the Art Institute [of Chicago],” McKinnon says.

With hundreds of attendees each event, Primer strives to be more than just another networking opportunity. The event seeks to give a voice to the unheard in the Chicago cultural scene by providing a platform that goes beyond a typical networking pitch.

“A normal ‘pitch’ is one dimensional—there’s no dialogue starting there,” explains McKinnon. “So we’ve kind of reformatted the pitch process to be something that engages individuals in the audience. When we work with the presenters we ask them, ‘What can you bring to the audience that other people can get involved with? Is that a collaborative need? Do you need a graphic designer? Are you looking for people to help you with a larger goal?’ Primer’s not just a place for you to promote your event or party.”

The result is electrifying. Between the music, performances, and pitches, all who attend will have no shortage of things to discuss and groove on.

“After the pitches and performances, there’s this buzz,” McKinnon describes. “It’s not a networky buzz, because it’s guided at that point. If I’m a participant and I hear all these people and organizations presenting me things, I either engage with everyone—which is awesome—or I’m with someone I want to engage with for a while.”

A Primer DJ hyping the vibes at a Canvas Primer in the Canvas Event Space.

A Primer DJ hyping the vibes at a Canvas Primer in the Canvas Event Space.

One such organization is the You are Beautiful (YAB) brand. Readers might recognize their prolific art installations and iconic silver stickers showcasing their simple yet powerful three-word message around Chicago or in cities the world over. Keith Afrokilla, production assistant for YAB, had the opportunity to speak on behalf of the organization at a Primer event in 2016.

“It was a whole different environment, because I had never been on the stage in front of a crowd of people to talk before,” describes Afrokilla. “I always looked up to people who could do that.”

Despite his nerves, he took to the mic and spoke to the crowd about YAB’s mission of spreading positivity and unity through guerilla art installations showcasing their mantra, “You are Beautiful.”

“Being in that position was awesome! I was a little nervous before I talked, but as soon as I got up there, I immediately felt like I got everyone’s approval,” he recalls. “It was like talking to people I had known for years. I knew people actually cared about what I was talking about and I knew Canvas cared about those people.”

After the event, YAB was inundated with supportive messages and requests to volunteer with the organization from people who attended the Primer or heard about it from those who experienced it.

“It was a great experience,” he says. “We got a lot of feedback and we ended up getting a ton of people emailing us that night about volunteering. It was nice to bring people together.”

The occasion turned out to be serendipitous, as YAB was looking for an avenue to involve more people with their mission. “We wanted to get volunteers then but we didn’t want people to feel like they were being cut short,” he says. “After speaking, we realized that it was a group of people who were willing to be involved with our mission. People were more than happy to offer help. It was so incredibly generous.”

It’s that feeling of collaboration and community that allows Primer to champion what makes Chicago so unique from any other major city. We are each other’s magnitudes, as Gwendolyn Brooks once penned—and the magnitude of the city’s enigmatic culture is boundless.

“I would suggest anyone go to an event if they can, say what they do and explain what people can do to help them,” says Afrokilla. “Just be as honest and real as you can and you’ll get the best results, especially for people who are just starting.”


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