Interview with Lise McKean

Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand opening November 12

UNUM Gallery at Albany and Carroll Arts Building

November 12 and 13, noon to 5 pm, and by appointment through December 15.

Barbara Koenen and E Pluribus at UNUM Gallery

LM: For many local artists, you’re a champion of the arts and artists within the City of Chicago’s cultural bureaucracy and beyond. You recently left that position after 23 years. Before we hear about what you’re doing now, let’s talk about your work for the city for people who didn’t know you in that incarnation.

BK: Working at the Cultural Center as an artist and bureaucrat, I created and implemented programs, policies, and projects that supported artists and arts organizations. I did most of that work in the Cultural Planning Office, including starting the Chicago Artists Resource Website, as well as Creative Chicago Expo, an annual convening of creatives that’s now called Lake FX Summit and Expo. I also did research about artist’s needs for space and technical assistance and was involved with some live-work space and housing developments.

LM: So your work involved thinking about—and doing things—to improve the infrastructure for creatives.

BK: I also worked on Chicago Artists’ Month. I didn’t start it, but kept it going after the people who started it lost their jobs.

LM: Did your position change over time?

BK: I was a director and not a director, and then I didn’t have a title.

LM: In your 23 years with the City, what are some highlights of your work in terms of impacts on artists and the city’s cultural life?

BK: Chicago Artists Resource (CAR), the website that’s more than a website. We worked for over 10 years on the project with hundreds of artists. So many things came out of it. Expo is one of them. And so many great people got involved too. CAR still exists and is run by Chicago Artists Coalition. In fact, I found my studio on it.

LM: That’s a perfect segue to asking about how your Cultural Center work flows into your post-retirement life.

BK: It’s only three and a half months since I retired. All that experience is still swirling inside me. Getting a studio in East Garfield Park instead of getting one closer to my home in Hyde Park is partly due to the work I did for the City. I was really interested in this neighborhood for my art practice and some of the other projects I want to do. I’ve been thinking about space for so long—about community, gentrification, resources—and about bridging the north side and the south side, the west side and downtown geographically and culturally and materially.

LM: What do you mean by your other projects?

BK: I’m referring to the creative reuse project that I’m developing. This feels like a good neighborhood for that. It’s so interesting to be on this industrial corridor. I look at all these diverse businesses and think, you probably have very cool stuff that you want to get rid of. Wouldn’t it be great to find a way to make their surplus available to artists, teachers, and other creators. There are so many smaller companies around here. Carpet makers, metal fabricators, florists, coffee roasters. They all have some sort of surplus. So I’m launching a city wide creative reuse project. I applied for my 501c and have grad students helping me come up with a plan. I’m talking to someone in Canada who already has an online platform that we’ll be adapting for Chicago. A company on the west side already has offered me some space and a truck.

LM: Do you have a name for your organization?

BK: I’m calling it Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange. CCRx: a prescription for creativity.

LM: What’s the timeframe for CCRx?

BK: We’ll be having popups by early 2017, a CCRx web platform by spring; and the first phase by fall 2017.

LM: That’s going to eat into your studio time.

BK: I’m trying to set it up so I don’t need to be there all the time. Chicago needs it. One of the reasons I retired is to do this. Materials for the Arts is run by NY City’s Department of Cultural Affairs but Chicago didn’t have one.

LM: Are there other recycling organizations that you can partner with?

BK: There’s the Resource Center that’s been around for a long time. The Waste Shed is more of a neighborhood based organization. SCARCE does aspects of what CCRx is going to do but it’s in Glen Ellyn. There’s room for something that’s bigger and looks at the whole city. We need something in the city.

LM: And if it’s not enough to launch CCRx, you’re also starting UNUM, a gallery in the front section of this fantastic Carroll Street studio space.

BK: This is happening backwards but I don’t mind. I didn’t intend to open an exhibition space. But I found this studio that has a lot of space and it gives me a chance to show work of people I admire and to show my own work.

Print from War Rug installation, detail

Print from War Rug installation, detail

LM: What’s the backstory on UNUM’s first show?

BK: This first show has works by a loose collective of artists whose practices were redirected after 9/11 in conjunction with the 15th anniversary of 9/11. Even before I found this space I was looking for somewhere to show their work and use it as a platform for conversations and other programs. When I saw this space and it so obviously wanted to be an exhibit space, I thought I could start with this group (Mahwish Chishty, Amber Ginsburg and Aaron Hughes, Jackie Kazarian, Michael Rakowitz, Alison Ruttan, and myself). We were thinking about a name for the show and we decided on E Pluribus. Each one is a voice of the many. Then UNUM seemed an open-ended name for the space. And e pluribus is implicit in it. It also reminds me of Barnum and Bailey. In my head I connect it circus, forum, arena. And the UNUM logo uses a font similar to Barnum and Bailey.

LM: What’s lined up for UNUM’s next show?

BK: Albany Carroll has its annual open studios on November 12 and 13. UNUM will show work from Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand, my long running series of paintings and works on paper. The title is inspired by one of my favorite jokes: “What did Buddha say to the hot dog vendor?” “Make me one with everything.” When I heard that years ago, it made me want to make art from everything around me. So I started using whatever was around me at home: nail polish, coffee grounds, kitty litter, grommets, creative reuse stuff as well. So the next show will include works from that series. And I might have guest artists who work in that spirit, but haven’t confirmed anything yet.

LM: How does creative reuse figure into this body of work?

BK: It’s an example of creative reuse. A lot of work I’ve done already is with found materials. With CCRx  I’ll have even more to work with.

LM: In addition to paint, what are some of the other materials that you use in your Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand works?

Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand

Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand

BK: Yes, some of them are painted, some are poppy seeds, or a mixture of both. I started using poppy seeds early in the Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand series.  I was making things at home. I had my canvas, and I used my gel medium, and applied it with floor mop. I thought it was interesting to be painting with my floor mop. Then I applied the poppy seeds and went back into it with water to create another layer of space. And the end result looked very much like a galaxy or cosmos. So to go from the very mundane domestic into the galactic seemed like a nice incarnation of the joke. Make me one with everything.

LM: I’m wondering how you went from Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand to your war rug installations.

BK: I started making the war rugs in 2002. The longer I worked at cultural center, the harder it was for me to maintain the playful art practice of Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand. The war was so traumatizing so my art practice consisted of making the war rugs.

LM: I’ve seen some of these exhibited and in your studio, but I’ve never seen you make the installations that they come from.

Afghani war rug

BK: I was introduced to Afghan war rugs through an exhibition at the Renaissance Society. I thought they were amazing and amazingly tragic cultural artifacts. This predated 9/11. At that time I also was learning about Tibetan monks who make mandalas from sand. After 9/11 and the cultural upheaval that followed, we were taking it out on the people of Afghan and people of Iraq, who weren’t responsible for 9/11. It made sense to conjoin the two cultural traditions, the war rugs of Afghan and the Tibetan sand mandala by recreating the patterns of war rugs by using the spices and seeds found in Afghanistan and Iraq. I thought it was especially important because women are so oppressed in that society. They are traditionally the rug weavers, and they were the ones who started incorporating weapons, guns, and grenades, and tanks into their designs. It felt like one of the few places you could see evidence of their presence.

LM: Is there any documentations on what the weaver say about incorporating including images of war into their rugs?

BK: In the west it’s not known because it’s so hard to reach the weavers. These carpets had so little value but were nonetheless produced.  The subtle shift from the weaponry being adapted to traditional patterns to more cartoonish depictions that occurred when Afghanis moved to refugee camps in Pakistan is culturally important too.

LM: The Tibetan sand paintings are linked to the South Asian tradition of making auspicious designs on the ground using spices, grains, and lentils, typically made by girls and woman.

BK: Yes, there are a number of traditions all over the world of fugitive assemblages, for example in Central America streets are covered with flowers, or Navajo sand paintings. I thought it was interesting for me as woman artist to channel the work of the women weaving the carpets doing this kind of painstakingly detailed labor. Of course the carpets clearly takes a lot longer.

LM: Where did you make the installations that became these paintings?

BK: At different arts spaces over a period of time—at 3 Arts, Columbia college, Navy Pier, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Grand Rapids Art Museum. And a castle in Slovenia.

LM: Your large war rug works would have come from quite large installations. How long would it take you to make a large one?

BK: It would be four or five full work days for large ones. They were made with spices, seeds, and colored sugar. I was being very good with the first two installations and swept them up at the end of the show. That’s what the monks do. Then I thought I’m not a Tibetan monk, and it’s way too much work. That’s when I started making the prints, to save the imagery from the installation.

I added fringe to ends of the rug installations by gluing popper firecrackers. Sometimes the installation looked so much like a real rug that people walked through. If they stepped on the fringe, then the poppers went go off. People stopped walking across the installation after they got disarranged and looked less like a real rug. The colors on the installation prints have faded and will continue to fade. The turmeric isn’t as bright and even poppy seeds used to be bluer.

First, second, and third print from War Rug installation (left to right)

LM: So you used made the prints of the war rug installation as a way to preserve the image of the work? How were they made?

BK: Yes, the print becomes an artifact of the installation. I applied an acrylic medium to a piece of canvas or cloth, placed it on top of the installation, and it lifts off the top layer. You can do this about three times before it’s all gone so I usually get three prints from each installation.

LM: Is it a delicate procedure?

BK: It’s a two or four-person job. It’s always interesting to see how each one comes out.

LM: Are you still doing the war rug installations?

BK: I did one at Women Made Gallery last winter. I’ll do more if there’s an invitation. I’ll have three of the war rug prints on exhibition in the UNUM show that opens on November 12.

Koenen’s studio with a work from her series, Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand

Koenen’s studio with a work from her series, Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand

LM: What else are you working on these days?

BK: There are a couple other projects I started a while ago that I want to conclude. But it’s premature to talk about them. There’s a whole watercolor series that I’m interested in playing with. There’s a process I created a long time ago I like and want to explore. It reminds me of water flowing over rocks in a stream. There’s a clock project that I want to work on that I call Correct Time. And who knows what else.

Lise McKean

Lise McKean is a writer, editor, and anthropologist based in Chicago.