To experiment with space in the name of art is to stretch our collective definitions of what is private and public, individual and shared, personal and political. At The Fenn House, an 18-room Victorian mansion in Hyde Park and home to Southside Hub of Production, explorations into these and many other concepts are continually occurring.
The aim of Southside Hub of Production is to provide cultural and communal free space as an alternative to the museums, galleries, and universities that largely comprise Chicago’s art scene. SHoP came to fruition in August 2011 through the collective efforts of Laura Shaeffer, John Preus, and a number of other local artists, writers, filmmakers, craftspeople, and educators.
Chicago Art Magazine recently caught up with Laura and John to discuss the ideas and events materializing throughout The Fenn House, as well as SHoP’s communities taking shape and thriving here.
The Psychology of Space
The wheels that set SHoP in motion began turning much earlier than 2011. In 2009, Laura, who is an artist and curator, created The Opportunity Shop, a mobile space for community involvement and artistic exchange.
The Op Shop was conceived as a way to utilize existing resources, share ideas, and provide a sense of wonderment in the everyday. It has been brought to life through exhibitions, events, and programs that take place in empty spaces throughout Chicago. After the Op Shop’s fourth iteration, a public gardening project in Hyde Park, its creators recognized a need for more time and synergy in one space in order to deepen artistic ideas and further develop programming.
John’s background as a builder has further informed the conception and realization of SHoP in distinct ways. In this vocation, he often thinks about the rules that govern public space: how it is organized, paid for, and maintained. While it is a direct and pragmatic way to alter one’s environment, John also believes that building “encourages metaphorical and poetic thought about how things fit together, how space affects relationships, how people inhabit space according to the degree that it is proscribed or malleable.”
The on-going construction of new environments at The Fenn House unites these impulses of stability and fluidity, through the people, events, and exhibitions found in this space. Once home to a Unitarian Church and subsequently a meeting place for various groups of interest, SHoP has transformed The Fenn House into a center for artistic practice and production, and eclectic social gatherings.
The Pulse of SHoP
SHoP’s core is made up of like-minded individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences, bound by a desire for community engagement through the arts and the union of aspects of community life that are often kept separate. Because many of the artists involved in SHoP have children, their current lifestyles have forced them to alter their commitment to art-making in practical ways. The Fenn House is a welcome space in this regard, as artists and their families can gather and engage in many forms of creative community—and, by extension—explore issues related to domesticity and family life through the lens of art.
SHoP is also a response to the pressing reality that artists need and want venues for artistic production and interaction outside of traditional institutional spaces; in other words, they are seeking freedom from the impulse to create art in response to other art. While SHoP promotes this kind of creative license, The Fenn House’s physical structure necessarily informs decisions of what can or should take place here. Exhibition proposals are judged critically, but also pragmatically—according to relevance and suitability to the space, as well as its expected, diverse, audience.
Artists often respond to what may otherwise be perceived as constraints with creativity and humor. As part of SHoP’s on-going exhibition, This House is Not a Home, which runs through April 8, Matt Joynt has utilized a 3rd floor closet space for his work. Adam Grossi’s small, intimate paintings wind up the back stairwell of the house, forcing viewers to try and view the art while walking up or down the stairs. For the Hyde Park Kunstveirin, Dan Peterman’s plastic boards have overtaken the mansion’s library, imbuing the room with reflections upon waste and memory. In all these ways, contributors and visitors alike find delight and surprise in the discovery of appropriated environments.
In addition to the many cultural events and exhibitions that have taken place at SHoP to date, subtler communities are kept alive through projects such as the South Side Seed Exchange and the Community Woodshop. It is also in the everyday that deeply poignant moments are shared at The Fenn House. John speaks of the Chinese dance troupe that meets to practice on the third floor of the house. When they leave, he says, “Each person waves goodbye, and the last woman hugs me and beats my back, there is no language between us but we understand each other.” Whether in the midst of a packed exhibition or during the tranquility of a Sunday afternoon potluck, a sense of profound connection is experienced here often.
The premise of SHoP may not be novel, but it is nonetheless filling a particular niche in Chicago, one that its creators hope will endure. As SHoP’s 12-month lease on The Fenn House comes to an end this summer, its future is open to speculation and some concern. The house is currently on the market, and the nearby University of Chicago is a likely buyer. With lease renewal a slim prospect, John and Laura are in the process of forming an Artists Union with Jim Duignan, founder and director of DePaul University’s Stockyard Institute. The goal is to develop a solid foundation and network of support for similar endeavors around the city, to keep artistic production alive in new and exciting ways.
The likelihood of SHoP’s physical relocation is fraught with feelings of uncertainty but also possibility, as there are many reasons to believe that its collective spirit will find roots in new and evolving communities throughout Chicago.