It’s a familiar story. Artists want workspace. They move into rundown buildings and fix them up, only to see the neighborhood become fashionable and expensive. They move elsewhere and the cycle soon repeats itself. This has happened over and over again in most major U.S. cities.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Chicago has an artists’ district nicknamed Podmajersky Village, after John Podmajersky, Jr., who went into real estate in the early 1960s. He acquired clusters of decaying low-rise multi-unit buildings three miles south of the Chicago Loop, made repairs and began to rent space to artists.
The best of these buildings surround large interior gardens, so that the artists had an opening to the street on one end of their unit and light, air and a view on the other. Since the gardens were shared, the artists got to know each other and a community spirit developed. Soon they decided to have a weekend open house every fall where the public could look and make purchases."Not a Street Fair"
In early October, we visited the 35th Annual Open House, which is sponsored nowadays by Podmajersky, Inc., the real estate firm that owns the artists’ buildings. Podmajersky has renamed the area the "Chicago Arts District" and the open house, which was once a rather casual affair, now has a director, an assistant director, an advertising budget and the inevitable website. The arts district is about six blocks long and three wide, with artists’ and photographers’ studios, art galleries, a café, a taco place and even a small art school. Maps listing 55 possible attractions were everywhere at the open house.
Cynthia West, director of the non-profit Chicago Arts District, explained that the Podmajersky family sponsors the open house, a winter festival and coordinated monthly gallery openings. "We’re trying to raise public awareness of this art community," she said, "and encourage people to purchase artwork at its source. This is not a street fair. No food or beer is sold."
The open house also promotes Podmajersky, Inc., which has plenty of commercial and residential real estate for lease. The 97 tenants listed on podmajersky.com include artists, designers, architects and more. Though rents may be rising -- reports differ about how much -- the district has not changed character. Podmajersky has kept Starbucks and Subway at bay.
Most of the artists at the open house seemed to be in their 30s and 40s, but we met some recent graduates and a man who was 70-plus. Few of the artists have downtown dealers; their names are not familiar to us. The work varies wildly in quality, but some was very well done. Overall, the art at this open house was noticeably stronger than what we remember from ten and 15 years ago.A Walk down the Street
At the open house, we walked from south to north, beginning at a Podmajersky-sponsored group show in a semi-finished gallery-type space (it’s available for lease) with brick walls, no gallery lighting and natural daylight flooding through big windows that face the intersection of three streets. E.V. Meksin’s mixed media paintings caught our eye.
In Eject, Meksin affixes the leftover "skeleton" from sheets of black and red vinyl stick-on lettering to a panel, creating a repetitive, roughly horizontal pattern. She paints on top of this -- an opaque red shape at upper left and transparent sky blue and bright yellow elsewhere. The result is an active patterned field that suggests landforms and muscle. The blue, which recalls clouds, seems to float over the field, becoming a second picture plane.
Our next stop was the Maladjusted Studio, where we felt right at home. Vanessa Shinmoto, who presides over this place, is a right-handed artist who makes left-handed drawings. On top of her imagery, she inscribes one of her boyfriend’s "pithy, bratty and cynical" statements. We responded to: "Tell Me Again If You Want to Waste My Time," "I’ll Listen to Your Opinion Even Though You’re Wrong" and "It’s Not a Madonna Whore Complex. It’s a Madonna Whore Complexity." Shinmoto sells her drawing/statements as prints and on T-shirts, mugs and mouse pads.
Across the street, we met Gosia Kosciela, who was exhibiting her work in a large, deep gallery space that is available for short-term rental from the Chicago Arts District. The artist, who creates multimedia installations, paintings and digital graphics, showed circles of salt spread on the gallery floor.
Koscielak’s newest work, which she brings to Chicago in November, is entitled Virtual Unism. She explains that Unism, or Polish Constructivism, originated in the early 20th century. She is reinterpreting it with sound and virtual reality technology. Visitors to Virtual Unism wear glasses and feel like they are flying in a dimensional space composed of brightly colored patterns and shapes.Chicago Art Department
The Chicago Art Department, which we visited next, teaches "interMEDIA," a hybrid art form that is said to embrace digital video, painting, graphic design, writing, music, 3D animation, architecture, installation and much else (at the artist’s discretion). A student show was up when we visited.
The CAD was founded by three young artists -- Mike Nourse, Nathan Peck and Nat Soti. Nourse has made video shorts, which are focused on entertainment, news and political media commentaries that he considers "investigations" or "re:constructions," as they follow rules to yield results. His "earliest memory" of interMEDIA "was in grade 7," he explains. "Like many other budding young teenager, I was interested in art, but questioned whether or not it was a smart career move. . . ."Happy Campers
Two doors down from the Chicago Art Department, we found Gabe Lanza, who moved from Milwaukee to a live-work space in the Chicago Arts District and makes his full living as a painter and graphic designer. Lanza’s cartoon-like acrylics fill every wall in his studio. Visitors see robots, lost lovers in outer space, suicidal pigeons, libidinous ladies, gun-totin’ cowboys and the like. The flat, brightly colored background of each painting is decorated with a pattern or network, much like a cartoon cel. He defines the figure with thick outlines and flat areas of color, making no attempt at 3D illusion.
We found Anne Farley Gaines in a gallery-like space across the street from Lanza. Gaines has lived in the Chicago Arts District for 25 years, making her living as a landscape painter and teacher. She has no gallery and works through personal contacts. Several years ago, she bought a house at the edge of the district, learned a whole lot about construction as she was fixing it up, and believes that the experience has given her material for several long novels.Lullaby
Hyonae Shim is one of the most talented -- and surely the most charming -- of the artists we met at the open house. The artist came to the U.S. from Seoul in 1980. She makes paintings and works on hand-made paper that embody Korean themes. "I trust my ancestors," she says. "I hope my paintings reveal Korean traditional values. My grandmother passed away in 2000 -- she was 96 years old. . . . I want to fulfill her dreams as well as mine."
Shim’s Lullaby suggests a horizontal scroll. The artist explains that her grandmother would sing her to sleep when she was a child, often playing with her hair. The markings and symbols on Lullaby speak to Shim’s childhood. Shim also showed some scrolls that had she created from embossed, hand-made paper, covered with Korean pictographs and hung vertically. The scrolls tell a gruesome folk tale about a girl whose father is blind. To feed her father, she gives herself to a fisherman who uses her as shark bait.
Michelle Litvin is an art and commercial photographer. Visitors had to sign a release allowing themselves to be photographed before they could enter her studio. Once people were inside, they saw numerous postcard-sized color images of Litvin’s work -- photographs that she took at Boeing’s manufacturing plant in Renton, Wa., for a recent article in Metropolis Magazine.
The artist had a video camera set up, which she used to photograph visitors as they "deconstructed" the photo wall. Later that day, she projected her video on the nails that had held the photographs. The artist does things like this when she’s not traveling the country, taking photographs for big magazines and other high-profile clients. We promised to return in a few months for a long talk -- and possibly an article -- about Litvin’s photographic adventures.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.