Hands-On Chicago

Hands-On Chicago


Cristina Córdova; Arco, 2010; ceramic; 1.5 x 5 x .4 ft. Photo: Courtesy of Ann Nathan Gallery

Chicago is teeming with working artists. Partly that's because it's home to one of the best art schools in the world - School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But it also may have to do with being a bit off the establishment grid. Here, artists think of themselves as hands-on makers, and a lot of that making happens in a zone known as craft.

One thing artists like about Chicago - and they like it a lot - is affordable studio space. For craftspeople, that often means co-op space with shared equipment and a chance to mingle with potential buyers. Lillstreet Art Center, one of the oldest and most successful co-ops in the city, started as a clay distribution company and branched into a ceramics studio. It began in a renovated horse barn in 1975, and since then has expanded to accommodate metalworkers, jewelers, textile artists, glassworking, and 2D arts; in 2003 it moved to a larger space that offers more than 35 semi-private studios. With an artist residency program, adult and youth classes, a gallery, a shop where independent artists can sell their wares, and lively First Friday openings, Lillstreet is a one-stop shop for artists as well as for craft lovers.

Ceramic artist Jennifer FitzGerald left her Atlanta law practice in January 2010 when she moved to Chicago with her husband. "I was already making work, but it wasn't until I got a studio at Lillstreet that my career took off," she says. The combination of affordable shared studio space, ample kiln access, and "complete autonomy" within a warm, like-minded community won her over. Now she's a full-time artist whose trompe l'oeil "woven" ceramic baskets and teapots are carried by Schaller Gallery in St. Joseph, Michigan.

Chicago Hot Glass, a glassmaking studio and school in West Humboldt Park in northwest Chicago, meets the same needs for a different art-making community. Located in an industrial space in a formerly crumbling, increasingly hip neighborhood that was ripe for redevelopment when glass artist Daniel Staples launched it in 2001, Chicago Hot Glass provides equipment and work space for artists while introducing visitors to the drama of glassmaking.

"Glassblowing is really exciting to watch," says Kit Paulson, a glass artist who works there as a shop technician. The studio offers short (half-hour or hour) "Experience Glass" workshops where visitors get to see glassblowing in action, and make a small item like a cup, paperweight, or holiday ornament. The biggest public event of the year, Paulson says, is the annual all-night party in November during SOFA. "Everybody's invited," she says.

At the opposite end of the city, economically as much as geographically, stands Ken Saunders Gallery. Located in River North, Chicago's oldest commercial gallery district, Saunders (formerly Marx-Saunders) has shown glass exclusively for 22 years. Drop in and you might encounter glistening objects by such major studio glass practitioners as Lino Tagliapietra and Dante Marioni. (But don't venture in tipsy after a Friday night opening. Bumping one of the lustrous baubles off a pedestal could set you back tens of thousands.)

A few doors down from Saunders is Ann Nathan Gallery. Here, alongside high-end figure paintings stand elegant steel cabinets and tables by Jim Rose. Fabricated from refashioned scrap metal, Rose's art furniture combines Shaker simplicity with a funky found-object sensibility, to surprising effect. Rose's pieces are equal parts art and function.

Across town, in the edgier West Loop neighborhood, Dubhe Carreño Gallery specializes in contemporary ceramics. There, one might encounter figurative sculpture, elegant vessels, or pure abstraction - or all of these at once, often by emerging artists.

After Los Angeles, Chicago is home to the largest Mexican-American population in the United States, and much of that community lives in Pilsen, a neighborhood that boasts a high concentration of artist studios and galleries. Fittingly, at the heart of Pilsen stands the National Museum of Mexican Art, which features a wide range of work, from ancient Mesoamerican civilizations to pieces by contemporary artists. The museum views Mexican culture as sin fronteras (without borders), permitting the display of work from both sides of the border.

The term might also apply to the way the NMMA exhibits craft. "We really make a point of showing folk art and indigenous textiles alongside fine arts," says Rebecca D. Meyers, permanent collection curator. Holdings include an extensive collection of huipiles (embroidered, structured blouses) woven on backstrap looms, and a growing collection of indigenous menswear.

Though NMMA lays claim to being the largest Latino cultural institution in the country, it takes seriously its commitment to local craftspeople, both in Chicago and south of the border. "We support a neighborhood quilting group," Meyers says, who notes that some of the quilters have shown their work in the museum. "And every October we do Folk Art Week. We bring in artists from Mexico and set them up here. They do demonstrations." People love it, she says. "They like to meet the artists."

Margaret Hawkins is a Chicago art writer and author of two novels and a memoir: A Year of Cats and Dogs, How to Survive a Natural Disaster, and How We Got Barb Back, which was recently re-released as After Schizophrenia.