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.
I was recently invited to contribute an essay to a forthcoming publication on The Stockyard Institute’s (SI) 2010 exhibition “Nomadic Studio.” It was a treat to look back and think through their amazing show and its constellation of programming and events. It actually felt like stars had crossed when I met Jim Duignan, founder of SI, at one of Nomadic Studio’s many workshops– we got to talking, and the next thing I knew, I was reviewing the exhibition, and then curating work into it and organizing and moderating a panel discussion for it! Duignan’s enthusiasm is contagious, but his true strength lies in his ability to inspire. Hopefully the 499 words below capture some of that, and recount just a handful of the art and ideas Stockyard Institute has helped seed.
The Stockyard Institute (SI) is no stranger to life on the road. From its formation in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1995 to its current perch amidst Lincoln Park’s leafy DePaul University campus, faculty member and SI founder Jim Duignan has made an artistic practice out of teaching, learning, making and giving things away for free. “Nomadic Studio,” organized by SI for DePaul Art Museum (in conjunction with the city’s year-long Studio Chicago initiative), sounds self-reflexive at first, but its true complexity lay in the fact that it was about both the why, and the how, of SI.
Duignan, along with Faiz Razi, Beth Wiedner, and a staggering number of additional collaborators too numerous to list– put together an audaciously elastic exhibition comprised of multiple, month-long thematic reincarnations. Featured works drifted across disciplines and blurred borders between singularity and replication, creativity and production, fine art and craft, and aesthetics and utilitarianism. It was cumulative, and expanded organically through the acquisition of new works over time. These works also talked to and cross-pollinated one another, shape shifting within each new context of the show’s constant fluctuations.
The handful of more traditional works in the exhibition confronted viewers with an exuberant pop sensibility and included large-scale painting, drawing, sculpture and a wall-sized mural. Some pieces were literally nomadic, given their mobility, such as the community garden housed within a canoe. Others were tools which required viewer participation to utilize, complete or deplete them, such as the low-watt radio station, the mobile book binding and screen printing stations, and the zine library.
Ultimately, SI managed to transform the galleries from a space into a place. This was done by literally replicating actual historic or existent Chicago places within the museum space, including the Rumpus Room’s basement recording studio, the Union Rock Yards’ stage, and A/V Aerie’s ballroom. It was also achieved by using the museum as a studio, as a place for experimentation, self-cannibalization and generative failure. Nomadic Studio was always humming– the palpable dynamism would have made most museums cringe with envy. Day and night, Duignan and his colleagues brought the outside in by hosting live musical performances, how-to workshops and open studios.
Beyond tangible artworks and transitory experiences, Nomadic Studio was also well documented. This led to the production of SITE, an online resource for educators that tracked the methodologies, development and implementation of the exhibition for future use and potential duplication. It also resulted in the text you’re reading in the publication you’re holding in your hand.
From the beginning, SI’s students have also been their teachers. Through a marriage of art and politics, they have acted transparently, embraced inclusivity, and stayed true to their belief that there’s plenty to go around. Above all, they appreciate a good spectacle, and this has been their trademark maneuver for reeling us in. The deal is sealed however, as soon as we realize that, through sheer force of will, they have the power to transform the ideal into the real.
All images courtesy of Stockyard Institute.
Hello again – I’m back with another quick plug for y’all. Tomorrow night, Chicago arts writer/administrator/curator Thea Liberty Nichols has organized a panel on the “form and content” of arts writing as part of Nomadic Studio, which is presented at DePaul University Museum and organized by the Stockyard Institute for the yearlong collaborative Studio Chicago project….jesus I can’t keep up with it all. Anyway…here is the pertinent who, what, whys and whens of this particular panel, which I think should be really interesting and if it isn’t I will be partly to blame because I will be on it, along with Patrice Connolly, Abraham Ritchie, Bert Stabler and the aforementioned Ms. Nichols, who IMHO has the one of the best names in the world.
Come see us discuss, and participate in the discussion! Also, please check out the whole slate of programs that are part of Nomadic Studio at the Stockyard Institute! And you can read more about the Nomadic Studio project on ArtSlant, right here.
6-8pm –Thursday, September 23rd
Form and Content of Writing w/ Thea Liberty Nichols, Patrice Connolly, Claudine Ise, Abraham Ritchie and Bert Stabler
Panelists will engage in a casual discussion that examines the form (newsprint, published monographs, online journals or blogs) and content (criticism, interviews, exhibition reviews, press releases or scholarly essays) of their writing. Their individual practices, including the texts that inform and inspire them, will be examined alongside the colleagues and organizations with which they collaborate. In conjunction with Studio Chicago, the ways in which their studio environment, and indeed the city itself, contextualizes their practice will also be explored.
Abraham Ritchie is a writer as well as the Editor for ArtSlant: Chicago, the creator and administrator of The Chicago Art Blog on the ChicagoNow network and WordPress, and also writes for NewCity. He has previously written about art for Madison Newspapers, Inc.
Thea Liberty Nichols is an arts administrator, independent curator, and writer who lives and works in Chicago. Along with managing Intuits Study Center, she also acts as Co-Director of 65GRAND
Patrice Connelly is the Curatorial Associate for BMO Financial Group’s Corporate Art Collection where she crafts catalog texts describing and contextualizing the art works in their holdings. She has been contributing freelance art exhibition reviews to Newcity since 2008.
Bert Stabler is a teacher, writer, curator, and artist living in Chicago. He feeds on the living.
Claudine Isé has worked in the field of contemporary art as a curator and writer. Isé was Associate Curator of Exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Assistant Curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. She currently writes for artforum.com, art:21 blog, ARTnews, New City, and badatsports.com.