Random Gallery Spotlight: The Poison Cup

Gallery Spotlights are posts about randomly selected* art venues in Chicago

Inara Cedrins

Erica and John Witte were dating when they opened the wine and art boutique The Poison Cup two and a half years ago. John had some qualms about that, but now, he says, “We are happily married and business is good.” One can see why – the location on Armitage puts them at the center of the neighborhood, where they are dedicated to making both art and wine accessible. It was a natural combination; John is a photographer, and Erica has been in the wine industry for 12 years.

John also equates the two because both are based on personal preferences. “You can definitely see the art is good, but you can’t tell about the wine until you taste it,” he laughs. Erica does taste every wine they sell, and explains the distinctive processes of vineyards to clients. “If you buy supermarket wine,” she explains, “You’re getting mass production, but we buy from the smaller producers as well.”

The majority of sales come from wine, though art sales have been improving with every new artist featured. The first artist hung was Marketa Sivek, born in Moravia and immigrating to Chicago to become a self-taught artist. Series of her work include “Dresses,” representing past and present, the innocence and purity of childhood; “Arabesque,” paintings created while listening to Shostakovich; and “Crooked Squares.” The latter two series are abstract, but “Dresses” and another series, “Red Balls” are figurative, with the uncanny glow of the balls presented in (very) still life settings indeed causing us to comprehend ‘stillness and movement coexisting.’ Her considerable following came to see her work at The Poison Cup, and that kind of loyalty, neighborly friendliness – and the desire to see something new, whether in art or wine – keeps customers coming back.

Owners of The Poison Cup, Erica and John Witte

Current artist Bill Bartelt’s career was as art director and designer for the stage, film and television; his watercolors were initially scene designs. He began showing work as pure art, and MGM commissioned him to provide Minnie Driver’s watercolor paintings for her film Return To Me. His sepia paintings in particular, hung on the brick walls, are all about light – and Chicago.

Erica and John originally planned exhibits to run for a month, but some have remained for 6 weeks, and they are always sad to see the work go. They are thinking of showing their favorite three or four artists in a group exhibition next year. Some artists have been referrals from customers, some have been artists that have walked in with a portfolio in hand; Erica and John also visit galleries and art fairs to select work.

The Poison Cup customers also love the concept of Paint Night, which starts with a wine tasting and light appetizers. Each participant gets a 16 x 20 canvas, and a demonstration featuring an artist’s work is used as a springboard for the three-hour session – previously Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, this time, Piet Mondrian. You can buy a bottle of wine to sip as you paint, or take one home.

The Poison Cup also does a neighborhood art show, asking people on the mailing list to bring in a couple of pieces. “Art, and wine, should be part of everyone’s life,” John says.

The Poison Cup is at 1128 W. Armitage Avenue

*Gallery spotlights are chosen based on a lottery, which we document by videotape, in order to be transparent and truly random. 10 were chosen out of a pool of 350.