It’s the second Friday of the month, and near the corner of 18th and Halsted, the Chicago Arts District Warehouse is filling up with clusters of jean-clad chatters. Visitors mingle in the airy gallery over a few open bottles of red wine and dozens of brochures. From enormous, dark oil paintings to intricately designed jewelry created with car parts, the walls provide a stunning backdrop to the casual conversation.
It’s another monthly gallery crawl for the Chicago Arts District. As they do every second Friday along with several other local galleries, the Chicago Artists’ Collective (Charcoll) displays its latest offerings. Charcoll’s founding artist, Elizabeth Buckley, a deep-voiced and passionate woman, mingles easily with the crowds, a tribute to her success at establishing one of Pilsen’s solid artist collectives. Buckley’s fellow artists rave about her capacity to support and promote local talent, as well as her ability to pick genuinely talented artists to participate in the collective.
Buckley describes the group’s coming together as an “organic process.” The tightly knit community of local artists found each other through the common bonds of friendship, talent and dedication.
“I knew Elizabeth [Buckley] from a coffeehouse,” says painter and photographer Ned Broderick, recalling that both artists ate breakfast at similar times. “We both had paint on our clothes, so it wasn’t very long before we started talking about art.”
During one of those coffeehouse conversations, Buckley told Broderick about the collective. He was pleased with what he found in the group. “These groups paint every day,” says Broderick. “They’re not ‘Sunday artists.’ They’re all real artists; therefore, you respect what they do.”
Before Charcoll, Buckley and her fellow artists longed for a gallery scene that would welcome their kind of artwork. Buckley recalls her own frustrating experiences with the conventional gallery scene.
“I like art with a bit of tooth to it,” she says. “I was always interested in a darker aesthetic.” But in the galleries she looked at, she saw no work that reminded her of her own. “I was really intimidated. Everything I saw selling was ‘it matches the couch; it’s beige, etc.’ I didn’t see a place for myself.”
This disillusionment led her, along with Chris Johnson and Chris Cox, to form Charcoll in 2001. What began as a mural-painting group evolved into a fine arts-focused collective that attracted other artists who share the trio’s sentiments. By mid-2002, Johnson had developed the Web site, and the group was beginning to show its art.
By 2004 the group has become a defining part of the scene. At this gallery opening, Melissa Kolbusz, creator of the aforementioned jewelry line, Wired, chats about her work with novices as well as connoisseurs. It’s hard to tell who’s who. The pretension that many associate with art galleries is notably absent, and the down-to-earth artists blend right in with the gallery-crawlers. There are no cocktail dresses in sight.
“We’re just regular people, doing our thing,” says Kolbusz. “You know you can come to an event and talk to an artist about their work.”
Unlike the traditional gallery scene, where artists leave the selling and interaction to gallery employees, Charcoll members coordinate the entire process. Buckley clarifies the difference: “A gallery is a business, like a furniture store. We’re a collective. We’re project-oriented. We all pitch in collectively.”
The burgeoning art scene in Pilsen is not a new phenomenon; informal gallery openings and artist groups have frequented the area for years. But it’s only recently that Charcoll joined in. A collaboration with Cynthia West of the Chicago Arts District landed the group the spacious gallery on Halsted, which they plan to maintain with monthly shows through September. Another partnership, this one with Cynthia Quick of the Illinois Department of Tourism, boosted awareness.
Since other galleries had been operating in the area for a while, it made sense to join forces. Working with Jerod Schmidt and Robin Rios of the nearby 4Art gallery, Johnson created a newsletter; Schmidt and Rios developed a map of the area to link neighboring galleries. “Having four to five shows to attend is a draw,” says Johnson. He recalls early crawls: “Every art venue was packed. I’ve never seen crowds like that before.”
As the crawls grew in popularity, they became Charcoll’s focus. Each month, most of Charcoll’s artists complete new work to display in the show, and when they’re not creating, they’re publicizing. “It’s another full-time job to promote your work,” says Kolbusz. “You can have a fantastic show, but if no one’s looking at it, who cares?” As a result, she only spends 30-40 percent of her time making jewelry. The rest of her time is spent promoting new shows.
Though the work can be tiring and frustrating, not to mention notoriously low-paying, Charcoll’s artists couldn’t be happier about their choice of career and lifestyle. For many of them, involvement in the collective has meant meaningful friendships, constructive relationships and a frequent opportunity to expose their art to new audiences.
“Now that we’ve been successful,” says Kolbusz, “it shows that you can make a living doing art, especially if you’re with people who are as driven as you are, and dedicated to making it happen.”
In a field where struggles and failures are common, Charcoll’s artists are eager to look toward the future. The group’s past successes indicate bigger goals and more awareness in the coming months.
“There seems to be so much energy, and a truthfulness to the energy,” says Buckley. “Art is an everyday part of life. People are used to and interested in the everyday life of an artist as community member. There’s no posturing. No pretending. We’re just trying to do really good work.”
Check out Charcoll at this month’s gallery crawl, Friday at the Chicago Arts District Warehouse; 1826 S. Halsted; (312) 243-4534; Charcoll.com