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Random Gallery Spotlight: Urban Art Retreat

Laura Schell

Group photo at Urban Art Retreat

Group photo at Urban Art Retreat

Just off the pink line in North Lawndale is a house that at first glance appears like any other. It is a two-story red brick with a fenced in yard on the corner of W. 21st Street and Spaulding Avenue. But if these walls could talk they would share stories of acceptance, of rare friendships and shared hopes for a future without oppression. Urban Art Retreat is a violence-free space where people can embrace their similarities and learn from their differences. The negative “isms” of the world such as racism and sexism are only invited through discussion and art. “It is important to be educated about social problems involving the community,” says creator and curator Dianna Long. “This is about pointing them out, not accepting them.”

At UAR they believe that art has the potential to act as a tool towards eliminating social stigmas. Many past and presently displayed artworks were made by survivors of trauma, who have applied art-making as therapy. The facility’s many services, which are dependent on volunteers and the support of private donations, fundraising events and small government grants, strive to uphold this mission by providing a variety of relaxing spaces where creativity can thrive.

James V Allen at Urban Art Retreat

James V Allen at Urban Art Retreat

It was 1984 when UAR was created by three artists/activists in Portland, Oregon. At the time, Long had experienced her fair share of rejection. “Galleries turned down my work because it was too alternative. I didn’t understand.” So, she and friends Mary Rose and Del DeLashamutt organized an art program that was supportive and encouraging to “outsider” artists. Since then DeLashamutt and Rose have moved on to take care of families but Long continued her efforts. “I was an artist but I also had a long line of social service jobs. I knew the two passions had a natural tendency to go together and so I just couldn’t get away from it.” In 1991 she decided the program needed to move to a city that seemed desperate for a socially conscious art program. “I kept getting signs that Chicago was a good place to start.”

Liz Long Gallery takes up the front room of the house, which unlike a typical contemporary gallery of clean, cold space feels more like a family living room with couches, chairs and a television in the corner. “We have moved around the city a lot and this has definitely been our smallest gallery space,” Long says. After several property management problems with rented space, UAR raised enough funds to buy their current location. And they make the best of what they have. Art of all mediums is hung up to the ceiling making the gallery a truly unique exhibition where hidden gems can be found at an affordable price.

A residence at Urban Art Retreat

A residence at Urban Art Retreat

The gallery features newly exhibiting and emerging artists along with more experienced artists to make for an exciting assortment. “I like to see art before it becomes so fine tuned and shiny. It has an edge and possesses a raw power, uncorrupted by society’s expectations of what art should be.” The gallery is also where artist workshops and public conversations are held. “We are a stepping stone gallery that includes a consultation service for those who are unsure how to present and talk about their work on a professional level. It is a means to somewhere else.” Past shows have included “Artists and Issues that Matter,” “Chicago As Art Studio” and the gallery is presently showing “Which Way is South?” an exhibition of women artists from southern states curated by St. Louisan, Dail Chambers.

The upper level of UAR is a Women’s Residence. Women who need an affordable place to stay temporarily or long-term can rest in one of the home’s four colorful bedrooms. The residence attracts female artists who are in town for a show or women in transition. It is easy for guests to remember which room is theirs with such whimsical names as “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” and “The Florence Comfy Room.” Guests also have access to a stocked kitchen and a comfortable sitting area with a library of donated books. Women from around the world have stayed here including women of all races, religions, sexual orientations, and income levels. Living so close to one another has made guests realize that there are benefits to stepping outside of one’s comfort level. The experience is an opportunity for guests to create connections that may have been unlikely before their stay.

In the studio at Urban Art Retreat

In the studio at Urban Art Retreat

The Differently Minded Art Studio, which was created for anyone interested in making art, is in the basement. “We found that art needed a place of support, not criticism,” says Long. The studio attracts diverse groups of people, art-inclined or not, including adults and children, some of which have mental illnesses or other disabilities. By working together the visitors are encouraged to look past the “other” and to focus more on the person as whole. “Art should not be intimidating, or limited to one type of person. Instead it can be meditative and healing for everyone as well as socially conscious.”

A true believer in the healing power of art and the positive thoughts generated from the process, Long claims that art got her through some of the darker times of her life. She is thrilled that UAR has finally found a permanent home to aid others in their difficult journeys, but also wants to reach out to less fortunate communities. The Have Studio Will Travel program allows organizations to connect with UAR to provide a supportive therapeutic art program at their site. One weekly participant of this program is Sacred Heart Home for physically and mentally disabled adults. UAR volunteers provide supplies and encourage the participants to be true to their self when it comes to making art. Long says, “It is when art progresses organically that it is most exciting.” To experience all that Urban Art Retreat has to offer visit during open hours Saturday from 11AM to 3PM.