On the Ground: Chicago

KT Hawbaker on Chicago’s DIY and artist-run spaces

Yvette Mayorga, Mexi Pocket, 2017, acrylic piping on canvas, diamater 20”.

I DECIDED I WOULD SOMEDAY MOVE TO CHICAGO when I was in the ninth grade, as I stood in a hotel bathroom scrubbing a henna tattoo off of my arm. Prom was coming up, and my Pentecostal boyfriend thought the shooting star I’d acquired at the Navy Pier looked “trampy.” We were on our high school’s band trip to the city, marking my first adventure without my parents, who were back at home in Iowa, on the brink of a poisonous divorce. The illusion of freedom that Chicago offered was intoxicating, and I began to see a city I could aspire to: She had neither time for controlling men nor other people’s shouting matches. Instead, she ate deep-dish pizza alone in her underwear and watched drag races purr down the Mag Mile.

Twelve years and six trampy, permanent tattoos later, I do indeed live in Chicago, but the city I aspire to is nothing like the shot glass-souvenir I pined for as a pubescent freak. But rewards do lie in the city’s proliferating artist-run and DIY spaces. Sprawled out across town, these spots enable creators to circumvent the precious whims of the market in what seem to be higher, more generous callings.

“Chicago’s DIY art scene is really vibrant, it’s collaborative, and it’s very queer and brown and nonbinary,” said Fontaine Capel, the former executive director and cofounder of Hume, an artist-run space that stood right on the edge of Logan Square and Humboldt Park. With Capel’s recent departure to New York for grad school, the cooperative gallery and studio space is currently undergoing an identity change. “Chicago’s non-dependence on market forces allows for greater creativity and collaboration. There’s less of a focus on money and a drive to get collected as the be-all, end-all of your artistic practice.”

Instead, as Capel saw with the development of Hume, artists here often come together out of necessity—the need for a studio, for a first show—and wind up making room for each other’s work and well-being. “It’s an organic metamorphosis,” she told me.

Without a fixed eye on collecting culture, these spaces also have more freedom to dive into the city’s history of radical politics. For example, this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Chicago’s turbulent 1968, which saw widespread riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the fallout around the cataclysmic Democratic National Convention. Artists are leaning into this legacy at spaces such as Bridgeport’s Co-Prosperity Sphere, the storefront arm of the Public Media Institute. Its recent programming included “68 + 50,” a multimedia series featuring experimental historical reenactments, artists’ talks, and exhibitions. Speaking about the “classic story of what makes Chicago artist-run spaces work,” Nicholas Wylie, managing director of the Public Media Institute and Co-Pro, told me: “There aren’t commercial, blue-chippy opportunities for artists. We make them for ourselves, and we can do that because the Chicago rent prices are still partially affordable.”

The best representation of a new homegrown model is in “Local Comfort” at LVL3, a Wicker Park hub where sixty-two Chicago-based artists are currently on exhibition. It’s an artist-run show distilling the vastness of the folks working here now—and the true grit residing in the arts community. While Ed Paschke might still hold the key to the city, the mythos of blue-collar self-reliance doesn’t hold much weight nowadays. If this show is any indication, we’re living in the zeitgeist claimed by Capel. A show standout is Yvette Mayorga, who often confects works from frosting and other saccharine materials to suggest the dissonance between the sweet American Dream and the sadistic realities facing immigrants at the border.

This self-reliant, collaborative model also serves up a sense of Midwestern hospitality. That’s the case at Oh!klahomo, an “experimental performance, sound, art and language” series held every other month at the Ukrainian Village home of Mark Jeffrey, formerly of Goat Island and cofounder of Atom-R, and Lori Talley, a production executive with ad agency Cramer-Krasselt. “It’s so much more casual because of the homey nature of it,” said Talley. “We have a lot more conversations. The nights are long and start earlier. The two say the neighbors even find their way over, many of them totally outside of the art world but curious about the sounds coming from the backyard.

“The last one was about Madonna and Elvis, and we had this young undergraduate student doing a beautiful performance of Elvis,” said Jeffrey, who always cooks one of his bacchanalian Sunday night dinners for Oh!klahomo’s guests. “The thing that’s important is that we’ve been here for twenty years and we’re asking ourselves, ‘How do you give back to what you’ve been given?’ I don’t really go out, but I like to bring people to the house. It’s about bringing emerging and established artists together in the same space.” “Everyone is on the same level there,” Talley continued.

An even surface, perfect for making permanent marks.

KT Hawbaker is a Midwestern arts writer and editorial assistant at the Chicago Tribune.