Over the past ten plus years, Laura Shaeffer has been the entrepreneur and custodian behind a number of projects housed within a handful of unconventional— and often under utilized— spaces on the Southside of Chicago, including Home Gallery, The Op Shop and Southside Hub of Production (SHoP). Her approach is a combination of activism and common sense; community building and home-making. She honors domestic spaces as sites of radical, informal pedagogy, and this manifests itself in an important through line that runs across her projects; they act as platforms for kids to express their creativity and imagination, and indulge their curiosity. Alongside immersing them in art and cultural production, an important byproduct of this is kids’ engagement with other kids, families, neighbors and neighborhoods.
By remaining open, nurturing organic expansion and leveraging intuition, Shaeffer stewards growth rather then shoehorning artists into rigid themes or mapping them onto discrete timelines. She recounts the combination of circumstance and serendipity that led to the recent closing of SHoP and subsequent re-opening of Home Gallery for us, and outlines her influences, collaborators and thoughts on sustainability and longevity below.
When John Preus, Mike Phillips, founder of South Side Projection, and I first started thinking about SHoP as a community cultural hub, we talked a lot about a need we all saw for a more un-programmed life, where idle time can be productive and where relationships have time and space to develop, between people, artists and generations. I love the idea of stewarding growth, looking after, caring for and managing an exhibit as a way of curating through encouraging artists to be more present and participate in the exhibit after the opening in ways that could make their work more accessible to others and in return inspire further thought and exploration on what it means to be an artist in our current culture, especially a more publicly or socially engaged artist. I tend to work intuitively and gravitate toward others who do as well. Working on shows with John and Alberto Aguilar was incredibly inspiring, they are both extremely challenging and creative thinkers. I found that a very good sense of humor and irony is most important in this kind of work and we were able to make each other laugh at the most crucial times.
One common interest John and I shared with others who helped found this project, as parents and artists, was to create spaces for exhibitions, learning and socializing where children and older folks alike would come and be in an environment that was heterogeneous and allowed for spontaneous interactions. We talked a lot about the Piazza, the Town Square, the Adventure Playground movement, public places where everyone gathered, young and old to have a drink, converse, play freely, or make things… and to linger into the evenings. We also wanted a cultural space where we could bring our kids and they’d have their own environment in which to create together so we set up what we called the Autonomous Making Space (silly name we know) for them to explore their own ideas, and make up their own activities, structures, and games. SHoP drew much of its inspiration from the Junk/Adventure Playground movement begun in the 30′s in Europe by C. Th. Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect. These playgrounds become centers, accessible to the entire community, a place to gather and play freely and to develop intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Like the Adventure Playground, we wanted our Hub space to encourage children and adults to interact with and learn from each other. Ultimately, we wanted to create a space for people to feel ownership and take responsibility for the space itself because it exists as a result of their own efforts and brings the larger community together.
In terms of spaces that have provided a source of inspiration, there are so many. Several are in Finland; Hirvitalo, a Contemporary Art Center, founded in 2006 as a cultural space in Pispala, Finland, a deeply kindred spirit; Pixelache, a transdisciplinary platform for experimental art, design, research and activism co-created by artist Andrew Paterson whom I had the good fortune to meet in 2007 at the Pedagogical Factory by Jim Duignan, founder of Stockyard Institute, who is a very significant inspiration for SHoP. Places like Experimental Station, Co-Prosperity Sphere, Mess Hall, Comfort Station and North Branch have provided guidance and inspiration as well. There are too many individual artists, projects and people to mention, who have been collaborators and co-producers over the years. Collaborations like Material Exchange, Kultivator and WochenKlausur have also been very influential.
After the Fenn house was supposedly sold (it is now back on the market!), we were charged with the daunting task of reducing the accumulated contents of a 16 room mansion to fill a 20 foot sea container, to be driven away and parked on the Resource Center’s land (thanks to the generous help and support of both Ken Dunn and Ken Schug and some wonderful volunteers). We had all grieved the loss of that beautiful space before we moved, but the lightness of being I personally experienced shortly thereafter made it clear that it is not the space itself, but the people who make the space meaningful through their care, their energy and their creativity. That location, while at once magical and wonderful, and which provided so much space for learning for us all, was also much more demanding than any Op Shop or Home Gallery exhibit and we really needed time to reflect, regroup and re-organize ourselves if we were to become a sustainable center for the community.
I suppose the decision to open up Home Gallery again was a combination of circumstance and intention. We invited some of the artists that played a large role in SHoP as well a few new ones to our private home to intervene with our “private lives” in ways that would alter or disrupt our routines and as well, help us ease the transition back home and frankly, tend to the spaces that had been neglected while running a 16 room grass roots community arts center for almost 2 years. Our tiny home became the focus for the continuation of concepts and ideas we had been working with on a larger scale at Fenn House, allowing us to explore the more domestic and private side of these ideas.
The question of how we will continue to nurture and grow our projects outside of the traditional constraints of traditional organizational structures and frameworks is a very good one. We are discussing and further questioning this all the time. What might we gain by adopting a more organized structure and what might we stand to lose? As an art project, The Op Shop had a sense of freedom and extreme fluidity, SHoP for the 15 months of it’s existence at Fenn continued to enjoy that fluid, flexible and organic quality… but how long can that be sustained? Eventually a project has to grapple with these questions, I admire projects like Mess Hall who knew from the get go that they would not opt to become a non -profit and had a very clear vision for their mission in this sense. I feel we are still questioning the whole issue of becoming a non-profit and what that implies and how it impacts the project itself. In some ways we will not know before hand but one suspects that there might be a loss of this sense of intuitive process, fluid practice and to be honest, we may get away with much less. On the other hand, money is an issue and funding is needed if we are to continue in any long term way. I am and we are obviously conflicted about this issue!
Maybe artists and others who are attracted to unconventional spaces to view and think about art, like the mansion, the small townhome, the porch, the back yard gallery, the storefront, the park, and various unexpected public spaces, are more likely to want to examine their role in social change, themes of modern urban life in spaces that are themselves a challenge. There are artists who have certainly been repelled. I like the story of one artist who had proposed a project for an exhibit at SHoP, was invited to participate, and showed up on a typical day for us, where kids were hammering pieces of wood together on the front steps, students were running a yard sale in the front yard, some seniors were playing bridge inside, the house was buzzing with activity preparing for the installation of the next show. I saw a looming figure outside the house and then I saw him disappear, I asked a friend if they knew why this artist left the scene without coming in to meet us (I knew him from his resume and photos) She said that he ‘didn’t want to show his work in a house run by unprofessional hippies.’ This artist never responded to us again. I could see his point, but I love general (orchestrated) chaos, so I guess that’s my fate.
As told to Thea Liberty Nichols via email, June 2013.
All images courtesy of Home Gallery and SHoP.