Guest post by Julia V. Hendrickson
Notes on a Conversation.
With—Arielle Bielak (Coordinator of Alumni Programs & Exhibitions at the Marwen Foundation)
In—Marwen’s classrooms and galleries, 833 N. Orleans St, Chicago, IL
Commenced—on Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011, 7:00–7:30pm
Unless you grew up in Chicago, there is an art school in River North that you’ve probably never heard of. Marwen is a particular kind of secret, one that is kept by this city’s young people. Offering free visual art classes to underserved Chicago youth in grades 6 through 12, this non-profit organization has a mission of wide-reaching creative education. Despite its low profile along the well-trodden Chicago artways, if you are a creative person and you start to ask around, I bet you’ll find at least one person that you know who has a connection to the school.
I started assisting with classes this summer, and it is to Marwen’s credit that the educators often learn a lot there, too. The environment is incredibly supportive, and it is so rewarding to interact with young people who are actively excited about creativity, while watching creative projects unfold before your eyes. Students do projects outside of Marwen’s walls, too, such as working with artist Jan Tichy and the MCA on Project Cabrini Green: a public piece with LED lights illuminating the last days of the housing project, blinking in time to audio recordings (which will be available at the MCA), allowing young people to share stories about home, community, and public housing in Chicago.
Marwen also holds another well-kept secret; on the second floor of the building lies a contemporary art space called the Untitled gallery. Designed to connect Marwen alumni with each other and back to the school, it is also an added educational component, with an aggressive exhibition schedule and powerful presentations by contemporary local and international artists. In 2010 the gallery’s exhibits showcased radical printmakers from Oaxaca, Mexico; emerging artists from Mexico City and Chicago; contemporary fiber and sculptural works; photographs from the Ukraine and Chicago; and more.
Coming up in the Untitled gallery, the exhibit opening April 1st is a curatorial project of mine, group show called Territories. It will feature works on paper by Suzanne Caporael, Ryan Travis Christian, and B. Ingrid Olson; paintings by J. Austin Eddy, Erika Hess, and Ryan Ingebritson; sculptural work by Maria Gaspar, Jessica Taylor, Matt Nichols, Josué Pellot, and Kevin Reiswig; experimental video by Russell Weiss; zines from Anne Elizabeth Moore via Cambodia; and a performance piece by Aurora Tabar and Sara Zalek.
My friend and colleague, Arielle Bielak, is the Untitled gallery coordinator, as well as a talented photographer in her own right. She is very much the driving force behind this gallery, and I asked her to answer some questions about her life and work. [Note: all of the photographs that follow are copyright Arielle Bielak].
AB: The Untitled Gallery at Marwen, formerly known for nine years as the Alumni Gallery, shed its Title in 2010. The whole shift is a culmination of years of hard work and relationship building with alumni, art educators, artists and curators. Its main inspirations are the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Antonia Contro, Sadie Woods, and the Arts Club of Chicago. The gallery is as unique as the building and community that it holds. It is due for a logo treatment and slick neon sign at its entrance.
My choices in artists and co-curators in 2010 were pretty intuitive, steeped with international aesthetics, microcontroller technology, and a sense of wonder. The whole run was organized around a Marwen sensibility of gallery education, a huge commitment to engage students and alumni at several levels, and a deep desire to manifest the art of social justice and the social justice of art.
2011 is moving forward with all of the direction of 2010, but there is a greater collaboration with other staff and programs in the Untitled space.
AB: I migrated to Chicago from New York via Virginia after an intensive yearlong stint working in the Big Apple Circus. I knew instinctively that I needed to get myself to Chicago, and settle directly in the middle of this big-ass country that I had bi-coastally divided and tangentially traversed for six years. Chicago was a dual return and a beginning. Marwen was the embodied trifecta of professional, personal, and creative desires I held in 2005. I did a lot of physical labor to allow myself to stay long enough in Chicago to meet the job of my dreams, and as it turns out, the marriage of Marwen, Chicago, and me was a powerful catalyst. I sit here today as a born again Chicagoan, and a self-proclaimed artist. This was not something that I had the proper huevos to declare before 2007. I believe in what I am doing here and everywhere I go. This is a magical and powerful home base.
AB: A three year stint doing photo and installation work with Deadline Projects was nearly neck in neck with my relationship with Marwen. Walking into Marwen’s front door I was making stuff that was strongly influenced by a Miami aesthetic, and infused by an Etsy and glitchy nerdtech aesthetic. This is of course thanks to the other artists in the collective. What does that translate as literally? BIG photos. Narrative. Humor. Dressing up my dad and sister as the Anglo god and Satan, respectively, and putting them into a hotel room bed. Pressing a shutter. Gold leaf crutches.
Even FURTHER before, if you want to know, I wasn’t really making art as much as I was traveling around with a death grip on the body of an AE-1 that my dad gave me in the early 1990s. Later it was a Nikon D70 that I gave myself when I was 20. I pressed those shutters thousands of times around the people and musicians from the Warped Tour and Take Action Tour who were there alongside me trying to cope with and raise awareness around depression and suicide.
In the circus it was a similar story. I was going for anything that moved in the circus with that D70. I didn’t share much of any of that work with a public audience other than bragging about the circus a lot.
I’m sure that all of this was influenced by the time i spent in Florence in 2001 as a terrified art student abroad during the whole debacle of 9/11. How can I explain this time? People around me were setting miniature radios into jello molds and calling it art, while I convinced my TA and best friend to do my sculptural bidding for me as I stood there shocked and speechless.
AB: Nice question, Julia. You know it’s hard.
It is also paradoxically the most supportive environment in my universe. Go figure.
I find that the overwhelming amount of artists in my life force me to draw on my memories and photos from the past in order to find paradox. It also pushes me into the role of curator, and then further into the role of producer. I am drawn to the most powerful, dedicated and radical voices among the artists who approach me as an advocate of their vision. I seek out different experiences in my limited spare time. I seek out architects and free Spanish classes. I seek out Mexico City. I look into microscopes. I curate the artistic energy that I find all around me into elaborate and spontaneous happenings in my personal time.
Evolution? In my own mind, my creativity moves as a more fluid, performative, and elegant animal than ever before. My formative beginnings are less pronounced, and more sublime, embedded. I am myself. I am not concerned as much with being inauthentic. I am all of my thirty years, and more.
JH: How do you sustain communication with Marwen alumni, and keep a network of all of the working artists out there? Do you see yourself tapped into a unique contemporary art scene? Do Marwen alums network and organize as twenty and thirty year olds?
AB: If Marwen had a soul, that soul is the confluence of the individual and the greater artistic spirit. Alumni are the proof, the echo, the rhythm of that phenomenon. It is my honor and pleasure to learn how to converse with those who continue to feel connected and inspired by Marwen. It is my challenge to reach out to those who are doing great things and have not reconnected. I do this strategically and organically. I talk to people all the time. I talk and I listen. I email and I collaborate. I support and am supported.
Lately, I have been in awe of the possibilities that our new website promises for alumni in particular, and I can’t wait to move into this new and exciting mode of communication with more of Marwen’s former students. I can see clearly that more alumni will reconnect with each other, their own artistic practice, scholarship, job and exhibition opportunities.
And, yes, of course people network as twenty and thirty year olds. Some do it completely naturally, based on long-established bonds that I could never fully understand. Others come to me looking to help them reconnect with old friends. I’m also planning a pretty promising alumni reunion and exhibition this August.
This artistic universe, at which Marwen is the center, is completely unique, and 90% of every person who experiences this place understands this. You simply cannot find another place in this time and space that establishes such a fluidity of learning and artistic expression across generations, experience, and discipline. The work here isn’t being made or shown anywhere else. Art is always the queen.
Julia V. Hendrickson is a native of eastern Ohio who lives and works as a visual artist, writer, and curator in Chicago, Illinois. In 2008 she graduated with a B.A. in Studio Art and a minor in English from The College of Wooster (Wooster, Ohio). Julia is currently the gallery manager at Corbett vs. Dempsey, as well as the office manager and design assistant for Ork Posters. She is a teaching assistant at the Marwen Foundation, an active member of the Chicago Printers Guild, and has taught at Spudnik Press. A freelance art critic and writer for Newcity, Julia also keeps a blog called The Enthusiast, a documentation of the daily things that inspire, intrigue, and inform. She is currently exhibiting at Anchor Graphics (Columbia College Chicago) in a solo show titled FANTASTIC STANZAS, on view through March 26th.