One Year Away From Chicago

August 5, 2014 · Print This Article

It has been one year since I left Chicago for Flagstaff, Arizona, after accepting a position as a full-time lecturer of foundations at Northern Arizona University. Many other Chicago-based artists and educators, some with roots and connections to Chicago’s art scene far deeper and stronger than my own, have made the same choice. Some leave for personal reasons, but for the most part, artists leave Chicago to find work, or, more accurately, they leave as I did, to accept an offer of employment from a college or university located elsewhere.

Most recently, Chicago painter Molly Zuckerman Hartung announced (on Facebook) that she’s leaving Chicago: first to Knoxville, TN, to teach for the fall semester, then to Miami for a residency for the spring, then back to Chicago to teach next summer, and finally, fall of 2015, to New York City for, presumably, all the usual reasons that artists go there. Molly cut her way through everything that stood in her way to get where she is, left an indelible mark on Chicago, and if anybody can pull the rock star Hail Mary of the New York scene, it’s her. I wish her all the luck in the world, not that she needs it.

Earlier this year, Tony Fitzpatrick closed up shop in Chicago to head down to New Orleans, a place that had been dear to his heart for many years. I remember him telling a story once, I hope he doesn’t mind my repeating it, about how he used to fly down to New Orleans all the time, and he used to carry a gun. He’d just mail it to himself. So one time he was walking along the levee in the French Quarter, gun in his shoulder bag, and a couple of teenagers who looked like trouble walked up on him, maybe said something, asked what was in his bag, whatever. Tony put his hand in the bag, on the butt of the gun, and told the kids to walk on. I guess they figured he was serious, because they did as he asked, walked on. But then Tony’s thinking about it, thinking about if they hadn’t, and then Tony’d have shot the kids, and he’d have that on his conscience, all for what, his wallet? Nothing, to Tony’s mind, worth shooting a couple of kids over. So after that he stopped carrying a gun. In my memory, the story ends with him pitching the gun into a canal, but I’m probably mapping that over from another story another guy told me about accidentally flying to Germany with his dad’s forgotten pistol in a pocket of a suitcase he’d borrowed from his dad. Anyway, Tony’s in New Orleans, but Tony can do anything, anywhere, and he surely will.

Adam Benjamin Fung, a painter who shows with Zolla-Lieberman Gallery in River North, left last summer to teach at Texas Christian University. Sweet gig, good for him. Amy Mayfield, another Zolla-Lieberman painter, returned to her home town of San Diego, I think more for family reasons than for a job. This was a couple years ago I think. Photographer Adam Ekberg, who I worked with at Hyde Park Art Center, moved to Florida to teach, along with Noelle Mason, who continues to show with Thomas Robertello. Liz Nielson and Carolina Wheat, artists who formerly ran Swimming Pool Project Space, moved to New York for a job; Stephanie and I adopted Carolina’s son’s ball python, Homestar Runner, whom we immediately renamed Snake. Dayton Castleman moved to Arkansas. And many more.

The reason these artists keep leaving, with one or two exceptions, is almost always employment. Chicago generates an amazing diversity of artists, not just SAIC kids, but Columbia, Northwestern, UIC, and of course the self-taught, the non-academic, and the artists who, like I did, move to Chicago after school and set up a practice. But Chicago can’t keep these artists, because it can’t afford to feed them. Some move to other metropolises, and do very well for themselves as exhibiting artists: Chicago’s loss.

Others move for a teaching job and do well for themselves in that regard, and hopefully (I’m hoping for myself here) can maintain something of a practice. But it’s a challenge, that last bit, one that I’ve been wrestling with for the past year. A lot has happened, I’ve got every excuse in the book, but the fact is, in some ways it’s been a pretty dry year for me, as far as painting goes. The move and the job are part of it, but honestly buying a house and fixing it up was the bigger part. I got some stuff done, did the Walking to Mordor project, that was pretty sweet. Did a few paintings but honestly none that are any good. I’ve got some ideas but they’re slow in getting going.

The gallery thing is rough out here. There’s one gig in town, Beaver Street Gallery, that’s pretty legit. If I play my cards right, make some decent new work, I’ve got a shot at showing there, I’d bet. And I’d love to. But, if you think Chicago lacks collectors, you should check out Flagstaff. The occasional Phoenician rolls through, but they mostly buy plein aire landscapes, or the kind of silver coyote regionalism that’s all over out here. Maybe things are better down in Phoenix. I’ve got some work up in a restaurant called The Bordello of Jerome, in the little town of that name, not far from here. Maynard from Tool has a winery out there; maybe he’ll buy a painting. We have another ball python named (by his previous owner) Maynard, in his honor.

Of course one hopes to leave Chicago with some connections intact, and I’ve been back and done a few group shows in the past year. The big deal of course is still the idea of having gallery representation in the city. I’d bet most of the artists I named above held on to their Chicago gallery connections. I think I pretty much shit the bed on that one. I had a solo show at Linda Warren Projects back in May of 2012, and was stoked to do another one. I had some good work going in the studio in Chicago. I made it back a few times, worked on the paintings a little. We kept trying to schedule a studio visit to line up the next show, shit kept coming up, it never happened. Why? Well, it’s tough when I’m only in town once a month or so. So I just picked up the last of my work from the gallery, packed up the studio, and drove it all down here in a Uhaul. I’m still hoping to do another show with Linda in the future, of course, but again, it’s tough to do, long-distance like this. It’s not all bad, of course. The job is decent, full time at least, though not tenure track. I’ve got a pretty sweet house I bought, nice yard, garden, bird feeder, all that. I’ve got a good studio space in what used to be the garage, all finished now, carpet and a wood stove and all. Of course it’s pretty full of stuff from the move, got to get it cleared out a bit, so I can maybe make some damned work again. So we’ll see.

And that’s what happens. That’s what’s waiting for you, on the other end of all those teaching job applications you fill out. Maybe. Depends where you end up, I guess, and your attitude, and your work ethic. But a new job and a move like that can really knock the wind out of you. A year without making a decent painting really does a number on your pride. So you get up, you get back on the horse, and hope for the best.

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