photo: courtesy of ThreeWalls
is the Chicago art world's version of Habitat for Humanity; every six weeks the West Loop gallery offers a different emerging artist a place to live and work on material for a solo show that's then exhibited in the space. Unlike many of its neighbors, the not-for-profit educational organization showcases artists who wouldn't normally find support in a commercial setting.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I met up with director Shannon Stratton to chat about how this outfit truly operates. Upon entering the small space—which includes a pristine, white-walled exhibition space, a tiny kitchen and a backroom where the artists work and sleep—we were greeted by the current artist-in-residence, Cat Mazza.
Even on a lazy Sunday afternoon, ThreeWalls is a hotbed of activity. While Stratton and I were talking in the kitchen, a videographer arrived to document Mazza's show, "Knit for Defense," a series of knitted works that demonstrate a resistance to war and to exploitative manufacturing practices.
Why did you start ThreeWalls?
ThreeWalls is the brainchild of my soon-to-be-husband Jonathan Rhodes. About five years ago, he was starting the art history program at University of Illinois-Chicago, interning at the Museum of Contemporary Art and researching different alternative spaces in Chicago, and thought that a residency project would be a great thing for Chicago to have. He met me and my friend Jeff Ward at a show Duncan Mackenzie and I had put together at The Pond, a space Jeff co-directed with three other artists. Jeff and I were interested in doing programming while Jon wanted to focus on the grant writing, and a fourth friend, Sonia Yoon, came on board to do communications. It immediately became collaborative. And now there are seven people who volunteer for us.
What's the essence of your mission?
In a culture that's so completely saturated with stuff to buy, we're losing an important part of art: artist's practice. We're definitely providing a different place, a different way to look at art here that is concerned with studio time, research and process over product.
Why focus on emerging artists?
For us it's emerging professional artists, people who have an M.F.A. and they have a serious art practice and are probably in their late twenties or early thirties. Our space is about their being able to finish a project, something that might not get exhibited in a commercial gallery. Then with salons, crits and lectures, they also get to generate dialogue, talk about their work, meet other artists, build an audience, expand their community and get feedback.
What does it mean to be an artist-in-residence at ThreeWalls?
The artists get a personal stipend, a studio, a place to live and a solo show as well as creating public programs around their work. We support the cost of the exhibition, but that does get a little dicey because we do have a really small budget.
How do you pick the artists who receive the artist-in-residencies?
Honestly, I don't curate it emotionally. I don't have a personal mandate. It's actually surprisingly easy to choose the artists. When you sit down and go through them, you can look at one artist's work and say those are beautiful drawings, but that they could easily find support in a commercial gallery; so it's easy to narrow down applicants right away based on our mission.
Do volunteers take turns with managing the gallery?
Yes, everyone's a key-holder. We could function like other alternative places and just stay open on Saturday. The reason why we can hold salons and special programs is that every one of the volunteers can do these different things to help that process. And I think it's important if someone is here doing a residency and working really hard on their show that people need to be able to see it five days a week.