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Sparking Investigation: Chicago Art Department

Part of the Randomly Chosen Spotlight Series, in which galleries are selected via lottery.

The Chicago Art Department was formed by three teachers – Mike Nourse, Nathan Peck and Nat Soti.  Jamming in a South loop loft, they began to combine their visions; videos screened on the high walls made the space more appealing, and they decided to present shows that incorporated this type of intermedia.

Gallery Preparation

Six years ago they rented a space a little further south on Halsted in Pilsen and, bringing their followers with them, found that when they opened the door for shows (traditionally the second Friday of each month) 300 to 900 people were guaranteed to come in and take a look at what was going on.

Podmajersky Jr. now takes care of the rental space for the units that his father grouped to form the artists’ colony in the eighties at 18th and Halsted.   The garden of the complex backs the CAD space with its long sub-level and two lofts, one at each end. Many artists of the original enclave have left for one reason or another, and storefronts on Halsted had become empty; Podmajersky and other owners have since renamed it Chicago Art District and were very accepting of artists’ use of the space. Both the Chicago Art District and Department exhibit work in display windows that are numbered ‘pods’; when traffic pauses at the stop light, people look at the art.

The three original members expanded to nine and CAD, a registered non-profit, functioned as a catalyst for dialogue between artists and the audience in collaborative works that drew people from different fields in, amoeba-like. Above all, the impetus to teach and use learning as an investigative process remains, as does the love for interdisciplinary media. As a graduate of the intermedia program at the University of Iowa, Nathan Peck is a Digital Art professor at Saint Xavier University, and has built his reputation for ‘maintaining a relentless exhibition schedule’ at CAD.

Painting installation in process

In terms of the exhibits, each has a theme – for the 200 Lincolns 200th birthday exhibit for Honest Abe, an open call was made to artists and non-artists alike to submit portraits. Upon visiting, what you’ll find is that there’s a wonderful spirit of giving here; many artists whom have made work for the exhibit never picked it up. But there are sales; Nathan has found that artists are better at describing why someone should buy his work than he is himself- it’s all part of the dialogue. Physicists at Fermilab, for example, shared the beauty of their design notes and invited artists there to come out and produce the Hard Science show: black circles representing ‘dark matter’ that we don’t know about are still left on the floor, with a few colored ones representing matter somewhat familiar.

Arranging works

In terms of its members, “nine was a good number, we were never stuck on a vote,” Nathan says, “we could each have a solo show and be part of group shows in a year”.   Dedicated members aside, more and more artists wanted to join the dynamic core group in their nontraditional art making. One of these artists was Jen Rosenthal, current Resident Artist and fledging Director of Development, who graduated from the Illinois Institute of Art in multimedia/digital-arts/animation discipline. Her membership is a testimonial to CAD’s welcoming attitude coupled with a love for interdisciplinary art making.  Technology is pliable – the iPhone show explored artistic uses of the tool – and contagious; CAD has been asked to ‘do it again’ at Navy Pier next year with sponsorship by iPhone. “It’s like joining a health club, you pay the membership fee and you get to work out with the artists and with the audience,” replies Nathan while explaining the department’s philosophy.

About a year ago, CAD took a space in the industrial park on West Hubbard, which to date holds 24 members, many of whom use equipment at this studio or set up in smaller cubicle spaces, “This is where the work gets done, Halsted is the gallery. We were hearing the same conversations twenty times in a row – I’d like to do this, how about a show with this idea – and we wanted to say to people, just do it, here’s the silkscreen press, here’s the darkroom.” The mission is real simple: TRY IT – MAKE IT – SHARE IT. Young artists and students have participated with such success that Perspectives Charter School on State and Archer is inviting CAD to function as its art program.

Artist set-up

With so many members, and not to mention a multitude of supported practices, its a task keeping up with the artists and their ambitions alone.  Nathan Explains, “some of them we might not see for a while – they may pay dues just because that’s what supports the gallery and the studio, and they want to see CAD continue, and that’s cool. If someone can contribute work that CAD needs, they can do that instead of paying.”

Nathan walks me past some of the drafting table spots people set up for themselves, walled off areas. Members know what spaces are shared, and in some cases artists have given a demonstration of how to use their tools, so others can work with them. “She’s doing some great work with match heads,” Nathan notes of one set-up. It’s a good metaphor for CAD, constantly flicking the flint to ignite the flame.

The CAD Gallery is located on 1837 S. Halsted, and the Studio at 1737 W. Hubbard.  For more information about shows, members and programs, please visit http://www.chicagoartdepartment.org.  The Chicago Art Department is a non-profit organization.