Random Gallery Spotlight: The Palette and Chisel- Working Amidst Chicago’s Art History

Heather Reitsma

A painting studio at Palette and Chisel

Walking through the elderly and wise 1870s mansion that Palette and Chisel has called home since 1921, one is transported to a time when a young Chicago was finding itself, and finding itself among the international art community. Once a flop house, a group of Art Institute students who attended classes at night acquired this space where they could work in the day light.

Executive Director of Palette and Chisel, William J. Ewers, gave me a tour of this beautiful home that now houses a drawing studio, a painting studio, and a sculpture studio. “In 1921 they pooled their money together and bought this place and one member, Fred Larson, put up his own house for collateral.” Ewers went on to tell me a humorous anecdote. Shortly after they bought the 1012 North Dearborn home, a building went up on one side and blocked the light the artists’ had desired when they first bought the property. But the skylight that was added to the painting studio during the first years of the space still gives painters great light to paint by in the third-floor studio.

Palette and Chisel’s art history is rich. “We had quite a few famous artists throughout the years.” According to the history on the Palette and Chisel website, artists included Fred Larson, Charles Russell, William Merritt Chase, Alphonse Mucha, Walter Ufer, Richard Schmid, and others.

“The first party they had was in 1897 and they were making fun of the Art Institute’s exhibits at the time.They were an irreverent group.” The bohemian eccentricities of the group only added to the organization’s allure and colorful history that has kept Palette and Chisel going. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ewers explained, the membership waned a bit, going down to about 90 members. “It was reinvigorated and now we’re up to about 300 members.” This new phase of the organization was led by the students of Richard Schmid, an influential artist of Chicago.

The bullet holes preserved in Palette and Chisel

But Palette and Chisel’s history does not stop with the artists. There was a rumor that a drunken caretaker shot up a wall in the basement of the building and there are bullet holes that attest to the truth of this rumor. The carriage house that now houses the sculpture studio is rumored to be the getaway garage for Al Capone and his henchmen.

The mission of Palette and Chisel is to make the studio space, the open studios with a model, and the classes affordable to everyone. Ewers said, “We do it inexpensively. That’s our goal. The membership is cheap, the classes are cheap.”

The drawing studio at Palette and Chisel

For $102 every three months, artists are welcome to the members-only Sunday Open Studio that has been held from 9:00a-2:00p every Sunday since 1921. Five-week classes are $150-$175 and ten-week classes are $300-$325. These classes are open to beginners as well as advanced artists, and since the classes are small, it is especially helpful to beginners. Ewers said, “It is almost like a one-on-one situation since there is so much time to work and the classes are small.”

The gallery spaces on the first floor are home to two exhibitions a month, showing the work of its members, another benefit of membership at Palette and Chisel. The first floor also houses the permanent collection that includes a James Montgomery Flagg piece. Ewers said that the artists who began this organization, the second oldest art organization in the country, were illustrators, so a lot of what is in the permanent collection are original illustrations from newspapers and magazines. But there are also sculptures and paintings in the collection, as well as a mural in the basement painted in the 1920s.

Other events happen within these history-seeped walls including theater benefits and other cultural programming. The communal feel of Palette and Chisel exists still today, making it a great studio base for artists of all levels. Artists can learn from one another, have exhibits of their work in the galleries, all while being a part of a deep and intriguing vein in Chicago’s art history.

Visitors are welcome to view the exhibitions and the permanent collection during the open hours of Palette and Chisel. Hosting two exhibitions a month, visitors will always have a prolific viewing experience while feeling a part of Chicago’s rich history in a place where history continues to be made.