Chicago Art festivals

Chicago Artists Make Use of Venues Indoors and Out

Friday, July 11, 2014 Rob Samuelson

One of the cool things about art is its ability to be shaped into whatever you want. You can make it out of anything and you can do it anywhere. It comes from a place of action. The venue doesn't matter. Inside, outside, somewhere and somehow in between. It's up to you. The Chicago artists who circle the South Logan Arts Coalition have taken that notion to heart.

As regular Halfstack readers may recall, I saw local band Bailiff at the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival a couple Sundays ago. After they finished their set, I wandered around the festival until I found something that caught my eye, a “pop-up art gallery” in an abandoned storefront along Milwaukee. I went inside and noticed a foreboding sign.

“Caution: Nails sticking out of the floor! Trip Hazard,” it said.

Photo Noah Vaughn.

“Neat!” I thought as I crossed the danger rubicon, of course catching my shoe on the first nail I came across. It made a noise like a sloth burping. People looked at me. I probably blushed.

Inside was a world I was unfamiliar with. It looked rushed, which was the plan all along, I would later learn. The walls were matte white, basically drywall. The pillars looked like Jenga pieces that had been chewed by the family dog. The room was a shell.

But hanging on those tattered walls were installations from local artists. Some were portraits of Chicago corners. Others were blown up photographs of cracked, craggy traffic lanes. There was even underwear that had been painted over.

There was something in the basement, too. It flowed upwards from the stairway. It was unsettling. It was loud. It had a percussive clang that put words in my brain I never thought I'd string together: industrial ping pong.

Gwendolyn Zabicki, the creative force behind the South Logan Arts Coalition, or SLAC, reassured me it was not some sort of steampunk monster eating things below us.

“[It's a] video by E. Aaron Ross and I believe he is using an axe to hit the columns in his studio,” she said. “The lights are off and he realized that the contact would make a spark, so it's a video of that action.”

I thought this was the perfect, cavelike venue for such a piece. Zabicki said it was more of a happy accident it worked out that way.

“We do pop-up storefront studios and the occasional artist residency in a vacant storefront,” she said.

“Basically I make lots of phone calls, cold calls to property owners and ask, 'Hey, can we use your space for a month?' then they usually say no, and I say, 'How about a weekend?' and they're like, 'Yeah, sure.'”

That's how she and SLAC got involved with the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, which is only one of many welcoming places for artists of all stripes in the city.

“There are a lot of DIY spaces,” she said. “I think that's because Chicago is very gentle and very accepting.”

It's not just big public gatherings like street festivals, either.

“There's a lot of apartment galleries and pop-up spaces and people take them seriously as real art venues,” she said.

Zabicki said economics play a huge role in this.

“The cost of running a real art gallery is just not a model that works for most people,” she said. “I think a lot of artists in Chicago have to wear multiple hats.”

This leads to some creative thinking, not only about their pieces, but about the way in which they display them and how they market themselves to potential buyers.

“They're an artist and they're also a curator, they're an artist and they're also a writer, they're an artist and they also have a day job,” she said. “There's a lot of space and a lot of vacant storefronts, and there's of opportunity in Chicago.”

In a bit of “what a small world” coincidence, I noticed a few pieces by artist Stephanie Burke. The name was familiar to me and after a few minutes it clicked. She is the wife and collaborator of Jeriah Hildwine, who was the assistant manager at the Ace Hardware I worked at as a college freshman, before he got a teaching job at the Logan Street Art Center. I asked Zabicki if she knew them, and she lit up.

She said that upon finishing graduate school, she began teaching at the Logan Street Art Center with Hildwine.

“I saw on the internet, he does a thing called Shooting With Artists, where he takes artists to Indiana and he teaches them how to use a gun. I said, 'I want to do that with you.' I went on a trip with Jeriah and Stephanie. They told me, 'Make a bunch of targets so we have something to shoot.' I drew a T-Rex with an erection. I thought, no no, I gotta tone it down. I covered it up a little, but you could still kind of see the dinosaur boner. Once I got to know them, I realized a dinosaur with an erection was the perfect Jeriah and Stephanie thing. They were shocked that I was holding back.”

I like artists. They're fun.

I knew I had to follow up with Hildwine on this, so I sent him an email about his shooting program. He said they make the artists, typically firearm novices like Zabicki was, create their own targets for whatever reason they want. It could be something scary, like the sexually menacing T-Rex, or something benign, like what local artist and curator Kirk Faber did.

Hildwine, at right, shows how to use the rifle.

I remember especially these drawings he did of beer cans, they looked straight out of a kid's coloring book, really cool stuff,” he said. “Shooting a childlike drawing of beer cans is the polar opposite of the Bin Laden target, which is a super angry, violent sort of thing to shoot at.”

Casey McGonagle, another local artist, went in a significantly darker direction for his target.

[He] printed a big photo self-portrait so he could shoot himself,” Hildwine said.

Hildwine said it's a way to get creative people outside, in a literal sense, of the typical gallery setting. He said that, with his new teaching position in Flagstaff, Arizona, he has not had a chance to do Shooting With Artists in the Chicago area lately.

Hildwine said he plans to continue showing his work in Chicago, not only because his wife still lives here. It was a place for him to set up connections and it still offers him opportunities to grow as an artist.

It's a more affordable city. There are jobs. I don't mean to say that entry level jobs with 40k salaries fall from the sky, but it's a lot less impacted than other cities. Rent isn't absurd like it is in New York or [Los Angeles], and public transportation is pretty good. What this means is that you can live somewhere cheap, take the train to work, work food service or retail or whatever, and still have some time in the studio. Then Friday night rolls around and you hit the openings, network, make friends, all that.”

He offered some advice to those trying to make it as artists in the city, too. He said they must be outgoing and introduce themselves to everyone at galleries and parties.

There's all this stuff going around on the Internet lately about 'how to treat an introvert,' and while it's nice to be nice to people and respect their differences, if you're shy, introverted, you're unlikely to get very far in any art scene,” he said. “You've got to talk to people, be friendly, go to their shows, in the hope that someday they'll return the favor.”

So, Chicago artists, it's doable. You can show your work. You can grow the pop-up art scene. Maybe you can shoot guns at your worst nightmares. Have fun.

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