Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Zhou Brothers Make a Creative Paradise


Zhou B Art Center

On October 16th, the segment of 35th Street in front of the Zhou B Art Center was dedicated as Honorary Zhou Brothers Way.

Mayor Emmanuel and Chinese Deputy Consul General Wang Yong joined Alderman Thompson, Alderman Balcer and Commissioner Daley to extend the honor in front of a large crowd of art lovers from across the city.

The Zhou brothers themselves are Chinese-born, Chicago-based artists of international stature.  In the Zhou B Art Center, they have created a Chicago version of the Kunstlerhaus, a stable home base and launch pad for other artists.  And they have brought Bridgeport to the respectful attention of an audience that once saw little reason to venture south of Roosevelt Road.


The role of the arts in making cities and neighborhoods vibrant has received growing attention in recent years.  And conversely, as the Illinois Arts Council’s Tatiana Gant observed in passing at the Zhou reception, the arts are increasingly asked to justify themselves in terms of measurable impacts.  That’s new, she says.  In the past, funders supported the arts because they believed they made people happy, enriched their lives in immeasurable ways.

But the measurable impacts of the arts are also significant. In 2012 , the 4th edition of a national study called Arts and Economic Prosperity reported that Chicago’s arts sector generates $2.2 billion in economic activity each year.  That includes $1.2 billion in spending by non-profit arts and cultural organizations themselves, and another $1.0 billion in spillover that the audience spends on the cab ride to the show, the dinner at the restaurant afterwards, the hotel and the souvenirs.

The Zhou B Art  Center in Bridgeport clearly has those kinds of impacts, as crowds travel to attend curated exhibits and private events – the Center served as a venue for 80 private events last year – and open studios the third Friday of every month when the whole building swirls with people.

Still, there’s an irony in asking art to sell itself based on such measures.  In the modern world, in the west at least, artistic expression has been cultivated as a sphere of values outside the rigorously materialist one that sees the world as an object to be studied, harnessed and put to use.  Generations of romantic types have worried that the materialist view robs the world of its enchantments and impoverishes people’s lives.  That it leaves them to navigate the world as a bureaucratic maze, reducing them to conformity and obedience.  Or else they make their way by the force of their will to dominate.

The romantics sense there is an alternate sphere of values, of rich experience and genuine feeling, but that their access to it isn’t guaranteed.  It could be suppressed by the demands of an instrumental world, like it was for the man in the gray flannel suit from the 1950s, who put on the harness for the office, and had trouble shrugging it off when he got home.  Or it could be appropriated for someone else’s material gain, like what happened to all those garage bands in the 1990s, who sold their most earnest expressions to a corporate machine that repackaged them, sucked them soulless and sold them back to their peers as cheap imitations of what it had all been back in their garage.

That tension between the sphere of expressive values and of material ones didn’t unfold along the same tropes in Communist China, where the Zhou brothers grew up, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t in play.





ShanZuo and DaHuang Zhou are native to Guangxi, a province in southwest China where you find the strange, green hills you sometimes see in Chinese landscape paintings – a fairy tale landscape. They are members of a Chinese ethnic minority called the Zhuang.  Their family had been scholars and educators for generations.  But the brothers were born in the decade after the Communists took control of the Chinese mainland.  Chaing Kai Chek and his Nationalist Army retreated to Taiwan in 1949, taking as much of the Imperial Art Collection and its 10,000 years of Chinese art heritage as they could carry.

ShanZuo and DaHuang, are names the Zhou brothers adopted for their new life in America when they moved to Chicago in 1986.  ShanZuo was born as Shaoli in 1952, DaHuang was born as Shaoning in 1957.  1957 was also the year their father MengYuan was convicted as a “Rightist” and sent off to a labor camp.

He’d been lured into speaking frankly about the effects of anti-intellectual reforms on the education system by the kind of policy change that made life in Communist China treacherous.  One year Chairman Mao is saying “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” because truth will be realized through honest dialogue.  The next year all the voices who ventured to contend are sent off to do hard labor in distant provinces.

Their father’s conviction tainted the entire family, subjecting them to new restrictions and punishments with each new wave of ideological tightening for the next 20 years.  In an essay Dr. Kuiyi Shen wrote to accompany their 2003 retrospective 30 years of Collaboration, the brothers still recall their early years as happy ones.  They lived above their grandmother’s bookstore in the picturesque town of Wuming, they entertained themselves with poetry and amateur theatricals, their grandmother taught them calligraphy, and painting from a classic Chinese text.  In those first years after the Revolution they had access to their grandfather’s art collection of Chinese masters, and their grandmother’s extensive library, they’d found their father’s scholarly writings on Chinese and Western literature hidden away in a suitcase.  Then the Cultural Revolution hit, it took Communist social control to another level, and “brought an end to all dreams.”




But the Zhou Brothers still dreamed of being artists, even when it was technically impossible, especially for young men with a “bad class background.” Paint and supplies were hard to come by unless you were officially employed as an artist, say painting sets for a theater company. Such jobs were only available in cities, and you couldn’t just move to the city to try to work your way into a job.

There was a registry system to stop the populace from abandoning the countryside.  Everyone was registered as a country, town or city dweller.  The system was enforced with ration cards you needed to buy food and dry goods – you could only use your ration cards where you were registered to live.  You could only change your registration status in a few special circumstances, and most of them were closed to the sons of convicted Rightists.

But somehow the Zhou brothers managed it anyway. Shaoli first, then he’d find a way to bring Shaoning along.  First he got a temporary job designing sets for an opera company in Nanning, Guangxi’s capitol.  He couldn’t get admitted to university and then placed in a city job at graduation because of his Rightist background.  But the opera company hired him as a “borrowed worker,” allowing him a series of temporary permissions to live in the city to work.  And once he was in, he managed to get a similar position for his brother - as a set painter at the Nanning Dance Troupe.

So they worked, and painted, in Nanning until the Beijing Spring, the loosening of policies that began a couple years after Mao’s death in 1976.


Li - River of Souls, Zhou Brothers 2012


To put this in context with other Hardscrabbler events, the Beijing Spring unfolded while Dan Davidson was showing his work as a systemic minimalist at the OK Gallery in New York.  They were the same years Joe Mancari and Al Ribskis graduated from De LaSalle High School to make their way through the disruptions of a postmodern economy then unfolding in the west.

1976 was the same year the 1st Mayor Daley died, Jimmy Carter was elected President, and the country was sunk in an economic malaise that seemed like it might signal some kind of more general decline.

In China, the world was just opening up, cautiously, after 30 years of isolation and bleakness.  And the faculty at the Shanghai Drama Academy, where Shaoli had been admitted, was known for being open minded.  In the late 1970s, that meant they were open to modern styles aside from Socialist Realism.

The Chairman Has Come to Our Factory

In his Yan’an Talks on Art and Literature back in 1942, Mao Zedong put forward a vision of art in the service of Revolution.  Borrowing heavily from the Soviets, he declared that art’s theme was more important than bourgeois ideals like beauty and self expression.  Its subjects would be peasants, workers and soldiers, muscular people in upbeat scenes.  They would be portrayed in a realistic style that would be readily accessible to the masses.  And art would be produced by workers, not sensitive artists in the bourgeois sense.  Even students looking to study the Chinese tradition world focus on the work of anonymous craftsman, like religious murals attributed to a collective workshop, as opposed to the fancy landscapes of famous masters who’d spun out frivolities for the elite.

A whole generation of students and artists had no exposure to art outside these horizons.  Then, after Mao’s death, the horizons cracked open.  In a 1977 speech, Deng Xiaoping signaled it might be safe to criticize the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.  By 1980, a handful of special enterprise zones opened doors for private ownership and foreign investment. And the entire weight of Western art history splashed in the doors at once.

It came in through visiting art exhibits, from Romania -- all the more powerful because Romania was a socialist country, exhibiting Expressionist works.  And from the Boston Museum of Fine arts -- which sent Singer Sargent portraits of society ladies, and a Jackson Pollock.  And more curiously, it came in through a spate of “book exhibits,” which put deluxe editions of art books on display for a browsing audience.

The book exhibits were ticketed events, and tickets weren’t available to the general public.  Dr. Shen writes that artists and students who gained admission would recall those shows, and what they saw at them, for years afterwards.  The Zhou brothers visited them again and again, taking notes, and copying pictures they could study in more detail after the Shanghai Drama Academy purchased the 100 volume History of World Art series for its library.

These were also the years that China was building airports, hotels and public buildings, some of which would be visible to businessmen visiting from foreign lands.  They were decorating them with murals that strayed from Maoist orthodoxies – both in their subject and in their style -- and in doing so, they opened a door to a new view of the purpose of art, and the voice of the artist, views more like those that took shape in the West.

Water Splashing Festival mural at Beijing International Airport
Yuan Yengshen, 1979

The new murals portrayed Chinese minority peoples engaging in picturesque rituals and other non-revolutionary scenes.  Dr. Shen writes that these scenes were still politically correct because they promoted the unity of all Chinese peoples, a longstanding theme of China’s 20th century regimes.

But he says minority culture also gave a powerful psychological release from the arid conformity the Cultural Revolution had imposed on mainstream culture, particularly among the Han majority and in the coastal cities.  He says artists traveling inland were refreshed to find rural societies still colored by local tradition. “For artists of a romantic temperament,” Dr. Shen writes “the customs of some rural minority peoples charmed with their primitivism, and the boldness and simplicity of their folk art formed a powerful alternative to the bare concrete political slogans, and slick propaganda images that surrounded urban people.”

Stylistically, artists were beginning to stray from strict realism toward the modern and the abstract.  Abstract art was dismissed as bourgeois in Maoist China.  Its preoccupation with personal vision and self expression was decadent, corrupt.  Its corruption must have seemed clearly manifest in the way these preoccupations splintered western art into obscure movements understood by handfuls of participants, whose work and quarrels seemed incomprehensible and irrelevant to anyone outside their cliques.

But by the late 1970s, Chinese artists were striving to develop their own aesthetic language too.  Dr. Shen writes that’s what the Zhou brothers set out to do when they came out from art school.  Returning to Nanning, the provincial capital, was something of a letdown after the stimulations of Shanghai.  Their ideas about art were met with incomprehension, their reputations still vulnerable to accusations of infraction against socialist ethics.

But Guangxi was also where there roots were, as members of the Zhuang ethnic minority.  And as they turned their attention to developing their own aesthetic language, they rediscovered the Huashan cliff paintings that they’d known from childhood. 

Huashan Cliff Paintings

The Huashan paintings are scattered across the cliff faces above the Ming River for 180 miles.  It’s not clear when they were painted or how, but they are old enough that their ochre pigment has fused into the rock.  Some scholars estimate they were painted during the Warring States period, in the first centuries BCE.   They depict myths, rituals, the daily life of the ancient Zhuang people.  The figures are simple, direct, they evoke the power of myth.

At first, the brothers made a study of them, and began copying them.  Gradually they absorbed them into their own style.  Years later in Chicago, ShanZuo would tell the artist and critic Fred Camper that rediscovering them was “the golden key” to their aesthetic vocabulary.  They used simple terms to convey deep meaning, like poetry, ShanZuo said. “From that time on we felt we could do anything.”

detail from Golden Dream, Zhou Brothers 1976

Dr. Shen says their emerging language spoke on two levels.  On one, it evoked China’s glorious heritage.  Standards of living in China were still modest, and “this claim to ancient greatness provided, at least for a time, a distraction from the realities of the present day.” On another, “artists familiar with Western modernism would understand that the brothers were operating within the still prohibited modernist tradition.”  In public, though, “all would speak in very different terms.”

The figures from Huashan would appear through the Zhou brothers’ paintings for the next 40 years.  In the late 1970s, they began incorporating them into long scroll paintings with sweeping themes. Heaven and Earth, Light of Wisdom, Cradle of Life. They showed them in a series of escalating exhibits, first in Guilin, then in Beijing, and in Shanghai.  Their fame and prestige grew in China, it spoke to the country opening up to the west, but with its own native voice.  It spoke to the power of history and also of resilience springing back from the tests of the Revolution.

The Zhou brothers had achieved all the status and prestige that China has to offer them.  But the political climate was still subject to reversals, including a brief crackdown on “bourgeois liberalism” at the end of 1986.  It must have been clear that their success was still unstable, subject to abrupt turns in the current, they might lose everything in an instant.  So when they got an invitation from the Chinese owner of the East West Gallery to show their work in Chicago that year, they packed all the paintings they could fit into suitcases, and they left.

From Heaven to Earth, Zhou Brothers 1977

In Dr. Shen’s narrative of the Zhous in China, abstract art represents liberty, freedom of expression, even the artist’s compulsion to create his or her own aesthetic language.  But as a language, abstract art is fractious and argumentative.

In the decades after Mao laid out the case for Socialist Realism as the Revolution’s standard for art and literature in China, the Chinese experienced the enforcement of one aesthetic language by a central cultural authority as a definite impoverishment.  They craved freedom of artistic self expression.  Art defined by one school to advance a centrally determined agenda wasn’t enough.

But during those same decades, westerners have found that the retreat of the cultural authorities leaves you with different problems.  The aesthetic language fragments into dialects, and it becomes harder for critics to judge with authority, for artists to communicate clearly, for an audience to appreciate with confidence.  Art is still important, so communication must still be possible.  But without the illusion of aesthetic universals, the audience splinters into taste groups, and it’s a lot less clear how they develop those tastes, or come to agree that something is good.

After Babel, success can seem arbitrary.  The success of other artists in particular may seem to be a matter of cronyism, hype, commercial gimmickry.  Which are all the kind of things some anonymous locals were telling Fred Camper when he wrote an about the Zhou brothers for the Chicago Reader in 2001.

By then, the brothers were world class artists whose paintings and sculpture commanded great prices.  Their aesthetic language intrigued gallerists and collectors from the start, but that doesn’t mean their success was assured. When they’d first arrived, and were still laboring in obscurity, friendly critics sometimes encouraged them to try painting something more like the pictures of beautiful Chinese women in exotic costumes some of their fellow expats were producing for the interior decorator market.  One suggested their problem was that they were still painting for museums, without having the stature to attract museums in the West.

But their poverty was offset by their sense of freedom. For the first time they were working without looking over their shoulder, worrying about the political temper, whether their work was allowed.  They stuck to their vision, they absorbed some lessons from Western artists (They told Fred Camper their work had become less cluttered, more clear, from studying Western artists who “totally forget everything and develop one idea very directly.”) And relatively quickly, their stature grew.

They were selling paintings, some of them to important Chicago area collectors.  Within a few years, they attracted the attention of a couple German gallerists who promoted their work in Europe.  So they were making money, they were growing in prestige.  By the year 2000, they were invited to demonstrate their celebrated joint painting style as a performance at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.

Balloon, Zhou Brothers 1990

Western critics saw the same things the Chinese ones did but from the other side of the mirror.  They saw resonance with Western modernists like Miro in the Huashan figures, but also references to Chinese philosophy and exotic aesthetic principles like the balance of matter and emptiness, air and harmony.  If their audience in China appreciated references to forbidden modern styles from the west, the western audience must have appreciated the mystery of something new emerging from a powerful, ancient civilization that had gone dark for 30 years.

"The Zhou brothers struck a chord with me," Richard Cooper told Camper.  A top Chicago collector, Cooper was one of the first to buy the Zhou brothers work when they arrived in the West.  “They weren’t doing the political art that usually comes out of a repressive society as it starts to mature,” he said “They seemed to soar with a spirituality that combined Eastern and Western feeling, an abstraction that seemed soothing but meaningful, that seemed to bridge both cultures.”

Life Temperament III, Zhou Brothers 1993

Camper’s Reader article was titled “Too Hot to Be Cool.” In writing it, he wanted to know why the Zhou brothers’ work, which was so well regarded outside Chicago, wasn’t represented by a single local gallery in 2001.  Northwestern University professor William Conger spoke up as a supporter.  He said he thought the Zhou brothers’ work has a lot in common with the figurative and surrealist art often embraced in Chicago.  “What is absent,” he told Camper “is the notion of the ironic distance.”

Painter Li Lin Lee agreed.  “Art has become very cynical and jaded, a stylistic and philosophical pastiche.”  He said the Zhous might not be fashionable in that context, but they are like other immigrants in their energy and hope.  He said their lack of irony stems from their faith in painting.  It reflects the fact that they “passionately believe in the ability of painting to communicate.”

Open My Door #7, Zhou Brothers 2001

Michael Zhou is ShanZuo’s son.  He was born in China and lived there with his mother until he was 8.  They joined his father in 1990 – the same year ShanZuo and DaHuang bought their studio on Morgan Street.  It had been a Polish social club nicknamed the ‘Bucket of Blood’ for its bar fights.  Inside, the Zhous built a spacious studio where they could work in peace.  Outside, Morgan Street was still rough for a long time.  Michael remembers that in China everyone thought the United States would be utopia.  When he moved to the studio on Morgan Street, the corner of 32nd Place was a gang hotspot and he wasn’t allowed to go outside.

Growing up, Michael says he wasn’t particularly interested in art.  He saw his father and uncle painting in their studio, but says “they painted in privacy, I didn’t realize how important they were.” He was more interested in sports.  When he went to college, he studied business.

But after graduation, in the mid 2000s, he started a venture with Rhett Johnston, the son of one of the Zhou brother’s early collectors, partly to showcase Rhett’s art.  They collaborated with brands like Nike, and incorporated Rhett’s hip hop and graffiti inspired designs into sweatshirts and gym shoes.  

The business was called MadeChicago.  They had a storefront a few doors from the Zhous’ studio but they mainly sold wholesale to clothing boutiques in Wicker Park.  There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic from Morgan Street, though Michael recalls young gang bangers appreciated the store’s visual language, “They used to come in and want to hang out.”

Today, Michael Zhou is Executive Director of the Zhou B. Art Center at 1029 W. 35th Street.  He works closely with Sergio Gomez, the Center’s Curator and Director of Exhibitions, and Donna Bliss, Vice President Creative Development.

Michael says his father and uncle once considered moving to New York because conventional wisdom said that to be successful as an artist, you had to be at the center of things.  But they knew New York was unstable -- artists would raise the profile of a neighborhood, then the developers would come in and rents would explode.  His uncle was particularly reluctant to follow the herd – he said their studio in Bridgeport was a creative paradise. 

They decided to stay and build on it.  In 2003 they purchased one of the Speigel warehouses on 35th Street.  Michael says their friends were concerned they’d got in over their heads.  There were holes in the walls and floors, and it was filled with debris, old cars and printing equipment.  They spent the first year clearing it out.



Michael says there was no business model for converting a warehouse space to an arts institution, they were learning by doing.  There was some friction from the city early on. “It was after the E2 nightclub disaster,” where dozens of people were crushed in a rush for the door, and the city was hyper vigilant. “They thought it was a rave space.”

The actual vision was something more along the lines of the Kunstlerhaus, a type of artists’ association the Zhou brothers had come across while teaching in Germany.  Artists work in the same building, providing both a material base and opportunities for dialogue.  “For an artist, the most important thing is the studio practice, having a permanent space to work and to show your art,” Michael Zhou says “and where rent is not going to explode 1000%.”

Part of the core mission of the Zhou B Art Center is to promote dialogue between artists and collectors and others who look at it.  That dialogue helps artists sell their work, but Michael says they wanted to create an alternative to the gallery system, one that promotes artists and their work, but that isn’t based on sales.

“A lot of our artists were students at the School of the Art Institute,” Michael says.  “In art school it’s easy to get lost in criticism.” They come to the Zhou B Art Center afterwards and can step out from the criticism and find their voice, “to find their visual language,” like his father and uncle found theirs in Guangxi.

Hebru Brantley is one artist who took root at the Zhou B Art Center in that way.  Brantley’s web site describes his work as “pop infused contemporary art inspired by Japanese anime and bold aesthetics of street art pioneers like Jean Michel Basquiat.”  Michael says he was personally drawn to Brantley’s animations, he encouraged him to develop the figure of Flyboy as a central character in his work.  “We gave him his first solo show in 2005 or 2006 – that was his big break, now he’s one of the most successful artists in Chicago.”

Wedding, Rine Boyer, 2015

Rine Boyer is another. Boyer often portrays small groups of people in her work, she says she is interested in how they interact, how people look at and appear to one another.  Having her studio in the Zhou B. Center helped her make a connection with the Bluerider Art gallery in Taipei.

The owner of Bluerider Art met Michael at a Sotheby’s seminar in Hong Kong.  She hadn’t opened Bluerider Art yet, Michael recalls, she was talking about it.  But she went out the next day and signed a lease on a 10,000 square foot gallery space.  Then chose artists out of the catalogue the Zhou B Center creates each year for a show called “Chicago Invasion.”  Rine Boyer was one of those artists. Now, Boyer says she does a lot of paintings on commission, many of them portraits, for collectors from overseas. 

Her Taipei gallery may also add new connotations to her visual language. The Bluerider Art website describes Boyer as an American artists whose work illustrates the intrinsic connections between art and culture.  “Modern culture is increasingly defined by its emerging subcultures.  ‘Hipsters’ stand at the forefront of the artistically aesthetic lifestyle.  Boyer masterfully depicts this trending group of style setters and seekers of authenticity.”

In the West, or at least in Chicago, the hipster and his aesthetic lifestyle aren’t always considered exemplars of the search for authenticity.  It might take a viewer regarding him from across the seas to remember the immaterial impacts he represents.  That is, the psychological riches of a culture where self-expression is encouraged as a sphere of real value.

Water Lily, Zhou Brothers 1976

The Zhous themselves are still building and extending their model of creative paradise.  They’ve kept their eye out for other properties in Bridgeport and Chicago.  Currently, they’re in the process of building an art center in Beijing. Their own artwork continues to change, probably as their lives unfold and give them new points of view.  One recent series of paintings was inspired by a return trip to China, where they revisited the rolling hills on the Li River – the “River of Souls” -- in Guangxi.  Another features world leaders, like President Obama and Chinese dignitaries.  But for the dedication of Honorary Zhou Brothers Way, they put up a preview of a new series of their own paintings on the first floor of the Zhou B Art Center, called “Water Lily Pond of Life.”

Back when they were young painters, when they first returned to Nanning from Shanghai a little isolated and unheard, they set up a studio in a drab warehouse, and they poured themselves into painting. They painted water lilies, thousands of canvases of water lilies.

The canvases in Water Lily Pond of Life have the monumental scale, the familiar figures from the Huashan cliffs, but in vibrant colors that gives some of them an urban graffiti-like effect.  They still have confidence in the power of painting to communicate grand themes.  Sergio Gomez’s curatorial notes in the gallery say that the theme of Water Lily Pond of Life is liberty.



Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Two Careers in Rolling Steel


Tapping a Blast Furnace, image from ArcelorMittal

Before he came to Blue City Cycles to work as a bike mechanic, Mike Okelman got 2 engineering degrees and worked at a steel mill in East Chicago –  home of the largest blast furnace in the Western Hemisphere in fact – where he made 4 times as much money as he ‘s making now.

Engineering is the kind of profession his parents wanted for him, and steel mills offer the kind of secure, well-paid jobs that have become hard to find.  But after 4 years in the mills, Mike says the work he does at the bike shop is more satisfying, and it also supports a more sustainable lifestyle.

Mike always knew he wanted to do something technical.  He had an idealistic admiration for American manufacturing and an abiding respect for the labor unions that made industry a source of good jobs. His parents wanted him to pursue a professional career, so he enrolled at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign to study mechanical engineering in 2002, and worked straight through his bachelors and his masters by 2008.

Back in 2005, he toyed with the idea of trying out an internship in the auto industry. “I was imagining working on energy efficiency and fuel cells,” he says, but GM’s presentation that year was all about the Hummer.  Instead, he found himself at a job fair talking to 2 guys from International Steel Group.  They had a table top model of a steel mill they’d probably last used to recruit new talent 25 years ago. “No one was talking to them,” Mike recalls.

Ladle of Steel
photo from NW Indiana Steel Heritage Museum photo gallery

2005 was an excellent year for steel makers worldwide, as economies boomed the mills couldn’t pour metal fast enough.  But American steel makers had been in decline for decades.  In 1967, the industry represented almost 5% of US manufacturing output; by 2001, it represented less than 1%, and the labor needs of the steelmaking process had dropped by a factor of 1,000.  Recruitment hadn’t been a priority for most mills in recent years, as evinced by that dusty table top model.  Plants that hadn’t shut down were still rearranging themselves to find a comfortable position.

International Steel Group had just purchased Acme Steel, a venerable Chicago company whose fortunes more or less tracked the local industry – starting in 1880, when Acme first opened as a maker of steel clasps and barbed staples. In the 19th Century, dozens of small makers of steel goods were embedded in Chicago neighborhoods.

Over decades they tended to combine into big vertically integrated operations that could smelt iron from ore, make coke from coal, turn iron into steel, cast it into blocks and roll it into finished materials. They also tended to precipitate on Chicago’s southern edge, by Calumet, where raw materials could be brought by the barge-full to their doorstep, and from where the beams, rails and pipe they produced could be shipped to all points of the country, if they weren’t absorbed into the construction of Chicago itself.

Acme opened a plant in Riverdale in 1918 as the Acme Steel Furnace Company.  Acme Steel employed 1,400 workers during the Great Depression, and by the 1950s ranked among the top 300 largest manufacturing companies in the nation. In 1964, it merged with Interlake Steel, itself a combination of Federal Furnace and the By Products Coke Company – they were located just across the Calumet River from Acme’s plant.  By the 1970s, Interlake Steel Group employed 3,500 in the Chicago area and posted annual sales of nearly $700 million, even though the American steel industry had already started its uneven descent.

Smoke Rising from the Indiana Harbor Works Plant
image from NW Indiana Steel Heritage Museum photo gallery

Steel making is dirty, dangerous and energy intensive, so maybe it’s natural that the industry should move to emerging economies less concerned with protecting their labor force and their environment.  When the steel industry first got started in the US, native born workers wouldn’t take those jobs, but the steel mills could staff themselves with immigrant labor.  The immigrants worked 12 hour days until late in the 1920s, and the unions didn’t get a foothold in the mills for another 10 years.

Decades later, when foreign competition gained ground with lower labor costs and government subsidies, the Americans still had the advantage of massive capacity in plants already built, but their calculations about whether to maintain or modernize them were getting more complex.

The big integrated mills weren’t just expensive to build, they were hugely expensive to operate.  Reheating a blast furnace after it’s cooled down costs a lot, both in energy and in stress on the equipment, so the blast furnaces would run continuously for years at a time.  Every 15 years or so they’d need to be overhauled, their insides gutted and relined with new refractory brick.  When the No. 7 furnace in East Chicago was overhauled in 2014 the operation took all summer and cost $70 million.

By the 1980s, more steel makers faced with maintaining old equipment were opting to reconfigure as “minimills.” They’d skip the costly process of reducing raw iron in the blast furnace, and focus on the latter stages of processing steel.  A minimill might have an electric arc furnace for melting steel scrap, another furnace for finessing the alloy’s chemical balance, and a continuous caster for extruding semi-finished goods.  To be cost effective, integrated mills need to put out at least 2 million tons of steel a year.  A minimill might put out 200 to 400 thousand tons a year, and the electric furnace could be started and stopped to meet changes in the marketplace in something closer to real time.

Relining Acme Steel's Former Blast Furnace

Acme Steel spun off from Interlake in 1986, unhitching itself from its blast furnace and the coke ovens on the other side of the Calumet.  By the early 1990s, it employed 1,200 workers, about the same number the old Acme Furnace employed at its Riverdale plant.  It was still using oxygen furnaces from the 1950s, but in the 1990s they invested in a continuous caster – a major modernization that would allow them to skip the intermediate step of casting molten metal into ingots first, before rolling it into sheets, bars or rods in a separate process.  The continuous caster extrudes metal through a track of rollers into long, semi-finished products.  Acme’s new caster was employed rolling out spools of pipe.

They never quite recovered the investment. Mike says it helped put the old Acme Steel out of business.  By 2001 they were in bankruptcy protection and finishing a phased shut down.  The next year, the shuttered plant was acquired by investors headed up by WL Ross.  Ross got his start as a bankruptcy adviser, he says he helped clean up the mess left by Mike Milken’s junk bond buyouts in the 1980s.

By the 2000s, he wanted to intervene more directly to turn troubled industries around. And there was clearly still money to be made in steel.  Competition is global and margins are slim, but world consumption was exploding.  The US was enjoying its housing boom and a new heyday for really big cars.  Emerging economies were racing toward the middle class, pushing up prices for commodities of all kinds, from metal to meat.

Ross’ investment fund first created International Steel Group to reorganize Pennsylvania Steel.  In 2002, ISG Riverdale reopened as a minimill employing 250 workers.  In 2005 the company merged with Ispat Inland Steel Company in East Chicago, and LMV, a holding company controlled by an Indian steel magnate, to form Mittal Steel USA.

Blast Furnaces of the old Acme Steel

That was also the year Mike took an internship at the ISG Riverdale plant.  He says it was different from a big, union shop. Which is not to say the workers at Riverside weren’t unionized.  They were a rough around the edges, but their roughness mainly expressed itself as hijinks.

They used to call him Monica (you know, because he was the intern); they once glued a little crown cut from a styrofoam coffee cup to the top of his helmet and called him to the shop floor to see how long before he figured out why everyone was chuckling.  But then when he broke his foot in an accident involving a radio flier wagon and a flight of stairs (not at work) the guys in the machine shop made him a little stick figure model to commemorate the incident.

Mike says the Riverside plant itself was almost quaint.  The carts and moveable equipment all still said “Acme” on them.  They didn’t melt their own iron anymore, it trundled over from Indiana in torpedo shaped rail cars, the big vessels of molten metal passing through residential neighborhoods, apparently without incident.  If it were to harden en route they’d never extract the iron from the car.

They made it into high alloy steel in oxygen furnaces that date back to the 1950s.  The whole room was coated in thick coat of kish – carbon particles exhaled as graphite dust by the steel as it's chemistry is refined.  Mike says it glitters in the air, it rains over everything, settling as a thick gray smudge.  The continuous caster was newer of course.  They used it to cast high alloy steel into spools of small pipe that would be used for making things like knives and golf clubs.

After graduation, when he took an engineering job at the former Inland Steel mill in East Chicago, their continuous caster would be turning out spools of pipe for oil pipelines and sheet metal for the auto industry -- materials for big industry and massive infrastructure projects.  A 3,100 acre integrated mill, the East Chicago plant, now known as ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor, is the largest plant in North America.  It employs 4,900 workers and puts out 9.5 million tons of metal a year.

Collectively, America’s big integrated mills still produce almost 90 million tons of steel annually, and have remained attractive acquisitions, even if no one is building new blast furnaces in the States anymore.  Inland Steel was acquired by ISPAT, another company controlled by the Mittal family, in 1998.  Ispat Inland became part of Mittal Steel USA in 2005.  Then, in 2007, Mittal Steel and Arcelor, the 2 biggest steel companies in the world, merged into one.

Indiana Harbor Ship Canal
image from NW Indiana Steel Heritage Museum Photo Gallery

When Mike came to work at the Indiana Harbor plant in the summer of 2008, world steel was still booming and the ArcelorMittal was on a buzz, calling meetings at their Indiana plant to announce all the great new benefits they’d be extending.  A few months later big banks were collapsing and all those new benefits were quietly dropped.

The steel industry has always cycled between boom years and catastrophe – by 2010, the industry was cautiously recovering, by 2013 it was declaring a rebound.  Back in 1999, the Chicago Tribune ran a feature on the steel industry that profiled Inland’s famous No. 7 furnace (built in 1980, 10 years into American steel’s decline) and the trends that had gone on to close two-thirds of the nation’s blast furnaces in the 20 year since it was built.

Workers were boasting to the reporter about the hellish working conditions, and about their deep attachment to their work, an attachment the reporter attributed to “the lore of the furnaces, and the psychological rush of harnessing raw – and potentially deadly – power to create something.”

The reporter observed that the process of steelmaking is basically unchanged from what it was a century ago, when Inland first opened the mill.  But engineers are still employed refining the process, partly because molten metal doesn’t readily submit to controlled study. Before computers, Mike says engineers would use water models to project how it would behave, because water has the same “kinematic viscosity,” it pours the same way.  Now they use computer modeling to study fluid flow, heat transfer, factors that might cause molds to break, or cause defects in the steel.  They’d test the latest equipment being pitched by vendors.

Steel mills use water applied with a system of nozzles for cooling.  One of Mike’s projects at the East Chicago plant was to investigate a new cooling system.  For a year, they took measurements, studied blue prints, consulted with nozzle makers and other engineers, and concluded the new system would have definite advantages – it was more flexible and could reach parts of the process that were particularly hard to access.  But in the end it was shelved as too expensive to implement.

The global financial meltdown did not help.  The Indiana Harbor Plant tightened its belt. Workers who could retire did so.  The company reassigned engineers, including Mike, to work as supervisors on the floor. That was technically a step down, though Mike says he liked the work more.  He hadn’t been drawn into the field by the promise of computer modeling. “I’m very hands on.  I want to build things…I want to be part of the process.”

On the floor there was lots of moving equipment and parts were always breaking, there were literal 
fires to put out.  Between castings, the supervisors and their crews would go over every part with a checklist, performing audits and writing maintenance reports.  The supervisor takes attendance, makes sure everyone’s appropriately deployed – and then inspects the quality of the steel as it rolls out from the of the caster.

Steel moving through a continuous caster
image from ArcelorMittal

The molten metal starts to cool as it passes through the casting machine, it forms a hardened skin, or sleeve, that allows it to move smoothly over a system of rollers that are working it into shape as it passes over them.  If the metal cools too fast or too slowly, it might break out of the sleeve and create big problems.  Or if a roller gets stuck, or mucked up with pieces of debris, it’ll leave tell tale imprints in the finished steel.

A ladle of molten metal can be worth a million dollars.  Mike says you’re taking chemical samples throughout the process to make sure the composition of the metal is right – if it’s not, you can sometimes fix it, but steel can also be “poisoned” by an excess of certain ingredients, like copper for instance.  And once it’s poured, if it doesn’t react the way it’s supposed to in the mold, it could spill over, or explode – like a lethal home baking project.

So the work was interesting, but the atmosphere was tense.  And that rash of retirements only widened an experience gap created by decades of industry consolidation. The floor was manned by a lot of guys with 30 or 40 years of experience, and a few new guys with 1 or 2 years.  It wasn’t easy to be a 27 year old, supervising salty workers in their 50s and 60s.  And there was nobody with 10 to 15 years who could remember how they were trained.  The old guys were often impatient to stop and answer questions, or to show the new guys what they knew.

He recalls there were a lot of strong egos, a lot of communication accomplished by in your face shouting matches – a method encouraged by the physical intensity of the mill, which is basically a huge open air warehouse.  It’s freezing in winter, or sweltering when they’re pouring steel.

“You can easily kill yourself.  You’re not always sure what you should or shouldn’t do,” Mike recalls.  There’s molten metal, poisonous gases and explosive steam.  “Mistakes are either life threatening or they cost a lot of money.”

There were several guys who died while he was at East Chicago plant.  One guy got crushed by a leg of a gantry crane; another was crushed in a truck-rail collision.  One of the supervisors was killed by a sudden steam explosion; a senior supervisor he knew succumbed abruptly to mesothelioma -- he woke up one morning and he couldn’t breathe, they rushed him to the hospital and he was dead before afternoon.

The mills needed to be staffed around the clock, and they were short staffed, so everyone was logging in long hours. The long hours meant that Mike was making good money, and also that he had no outside life, so he wasn’t spending any of it. He paid off all his student loans, and then he started socking as much as he could in retirement account. And then, after 4 years, he had enough.

Inside the Shed
image from NW Indiana Steel Heritage photo gallery
“I got to the point I realized it was important to me to respect and like the people I work with,” which was not the overriding atmosphere at the mill.

Now, he jokes that he uses more of the skills he’d hoped to use as an engineer working at the bike shop.  It’s certainly a hands-on job – with a lot less housekeeping and filing of reports.  The mechanics each have an area of unofficial specialty based on their favorite kind of bikes.  Owen Lloyd, one of the shop's owners, gets any English tourers or racers that come in the door.  “Owen’s an English three speed kind of guy,” Mike’s a Japanese road bike kind of guy himself.

Even customer service never approaches the stress of the mill.  A lot of Blue City Cycles’ customers are in the service industry, they’ll do the mechanics little favors, like bringing donuts to the shop.

Some customers won’t bring their bikes in for service until they’re completely unrideable, they make for entertaining stories -- like the guy who came in with a flat that he’d kept riding even as the inner tube was forced out of the tire and wrapped around the rear gears, he rode it until the wheel wouldn’t turn anymore.

Then there’s the customer who had her bike in for brake adjustments a few times, and then came back one day to buy the tools and cables to do the repair herself.  “We love that,” Mike says “We were like give us a call if you have any trouble…”



Feel good stories aside, you’d expect the most significant drawback to Mike’s career change would be the effect on his financial well being .  His earnings have been greatly reduced.  Probably part of the reason he can swing it is because he’s not raising kids right now.

But the bike shop also helps sustain him in indirect ways. Because it effectively ties all of them in with a community -- of customers, and of owners and employees of the neighboring businesses .  They’re embedded into the neighborhood; it’s quality of life benefit that spills over in immeasurable, but material ways.

The clearest example is Mike’s apartment.  It’s just few blocks from the shop; he pays a very reasonable rent.  He leases it from the girlfriend of the owner of a business across the street.  It’s an apartment that’s been in her family for many years, so she probably doesn’t have to bring in big rents, she rents the other apartment to one of her boyfriend’s employees.

Trying to live on a bike mechanic’s wages would be very different in Logan Square, where DNAInfo just reported a developer’s plans to build 500 square foot “micro apartments” with rents starting at $1,200 a month.

Logan Square renters are paying a lot for their neighborhood’s amenities – it is better stocked with hip restaurants, boutiques and bars -- and for the street vibe that comes with them.  Bridgeport has a street vibe too.  It’s not based on cool-factor or cache, it’s the vibe you get from running into 5 people you know between the coffee shop and the drug store, and Mike thrives on that.

He lived in Humboldt Park near Logan Square before he worked at Blue City Cycles, he says it felt more transient, people live in an apartment for a few years and then they’re gone.  There were plenty of neat restaurants and neat little bars.  “I’m the target demographic for a lot of that,” he says but he thinks there’s something a little artificial about them, like they’re decorated new to imitate the kind of quirky, run-down color you find at a place like Bernice’s. “Why not just go to Bernice’s?” The beer costs half of much.  And you might swap some stories with Mike Okelman there.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Now Running for State Rep From Greater Bridgeport

Candidate Theresa Mah with neighbor Diana Tovar Cruz at God's Closet Clothing Pantry

When you vote for a candidate for government office you can listen to all their campaign promises to achieve specific goals, but in the end you have to have some confidence in their judgment once they get there.  So you want to know what they stand for, broadly speaking, what their ideals are.  But you also want to know they can actually make things happen once they’re in.

Two candidates are gearing up to run for State Representative of the 2nd District in the Illinois General Assembly – that’s the seat that represents most of greater Bridgeport, from Pilsen and Chinatown to Back of the Yards, McKinley Park and much of Brighton Park.  Right now, the State Representative for the 2nd District is Edward Acevedo, long time Democratic party loyalist and an assistant majority leader to Michael Madigan.  He isn’t running for re-election, instead his 29 year old son, Alex Acevedo, is running for the seat.

The younger Acevedo doesn’t have much of a resume yet.  When he first announced his intentions in June, Sun Times columnist Dan Mihalopoulos suggested his candidacy stands for “the time honored tradition of dynastic politics.”  In years past, that might have been enough – the son of a powerful party man could be counted on to stand for the party agenda, and he could use his connections to grease wheels and play his part in getting things done.

But today, as politicians struggle to get their arms around budget and pension issues their old school predecessors managed mainly to kick down the road, the younger Acevedo’s fate at the polls may also represent real change.  This week Crain’s Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz says Acevedo would have resigned and appointed his son to side step an election, but Party Committeeman John Daley said no.  Hinz guesses Commissioner Daley decided to give the district’s changing demographic a fair chance to express itself in an election. The 2nd District was re-drawn in 2011, uniting Chinese voters previously divided into 4 districts into one “Latino-Asian coalition district.” Now the district is just over half Latino, and roughly equal parts Asian and White.

On August 24th, our McKinley Park neighbor Theresa Mah will launch her campaign for State Rep for the 2nd District from the Zhou B. Art Center in Bridgeport.  She has a strong resume of public service in a wide range of capacities, and a consistent record of legislative and policy change.  Judging by her achievements, Mah stands for giving voice to everyday people, and for building up the roadways to the American Dream.


Candidate Mah at Fiesta Del Sol in Pilsen
with Pastor Tom Gaulke and Vicar Toby Chow from First Trinity Church

It’s a consistent theme in her life and career.  It traces back to family stories she heard about her grandfather, a Chinese immigrant to the West Coast in the 1920s, and his struggles under discriminatory policies and low wage jobs.  People like her grandfather – first generation immigrants and laborers of all kinds -- have been integral to the building of this country, yet their labor is still ignored and dismissed. “Their stories aren’t told,” Mah says. Initially, she wanted to correct that as a history teacher.  She taught her students how to think critically about the role of the voiceless in building our society.

As a historian, she’s equally convinced of the profound impact that policy can play in people’s lives.  She wrote her dissertation on housing segregation, where government policies like redlining had devastating effects.  But policy can have equally powerful positive effects – think of the way that defining collective bargaining rights helped build the American middle class.

When Mah moved into a role as a policy advocate, she says giving voice to everyday people has been the connecting thread.  She worked as a policy consultant for the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, and later as a Senior Policy Advisor to Governor Quinn.  In these roles she worked on immigrant issues, but especially on policies that helped them reach for the American Promise.  Smoothing out hurdles to licensing of cosmetologists makes them less vulnerable to exploitation, and doing the same for engineers makes it easier for them to stay and apply their skills toward the Illinois economy.

She helped bring a badly needed a new library Chinatown.  Mah says libraries are an especially important point of cultural access for immigrant communities – the former Chinatown library was so undersized and heavily used that patrons would regularly find places to sit on the floor.

And the avenues that give immigrants access to the best promises of American society are the same ones that are essential to the working population at large. Mah is serving her second term on the Local School Council for Thomas Kelly High School.  In a time when the Chicago Public Schools are regular targets for cuts, Mah says Kelly shows what public schools can achieve: "It should be an example of a high achieving school in a lower income district.”


With the Crosstown Coalition working for a 31st Street Bus
Mah has been an active participant in the Bridgeport Alliance which made the bus one of its central campaigns

As a candidate, Mah can boast not just about what she stands for, but about her practical skills for working with all kinds of people, building coalitions, and finding the levers of state government to realize goals.  She says the Chinese Coalition averaged a piece of legislation a year while she worked with them.  She sums up her job in the Governor's Office as "problem solving." She took full advantage of the opportunity to talk to as many people as possible while she was there.  She learned what her colleagues were doing, what their agencies are responsible for, so for any given problem she could navigate a logical pathway from point A to point B. 

Today, as Mah knocks on doors to talk to people about her campaign, she’s been surprised how many people don’t know who their current State Rep is, even when they live within blocks from his office.  She says a big part of the conversations are about what the job of the State Representative actually is, and she brings it up as a lesson in the importance of keeping in touch with voters after the election so they know what their Representative is doing.

When the Sun Times’ Mihalopoulos wrote about the younger Acevedo’s campaign back in June , he remarked that political dynasties have been faltering.  He pointed out State Rep Will Guzzardi successful campaign against Joe Berrios’ daughter on the northwest side as one example, but he sounded unsure whether the southwest side is ripe for a similar change.

Theresa Mah is confident that it is.  She’s a veteran of other people’s political campaigns, and she’s assembled a team of advisors and staff, including a manager who led Susan Garza’s Aldermanic victory over a 16 year incumbent.  “It’s a winnable campaign,” Mah says of her run for 2nd District State Rep, “It’ll be won by talking to people.”


Talking to neighbors at a CAPS Smokeout in Hoyne Park
Mah says CAPS meetings are where the most engaged members of the community can be found

Sunday, July 26, 2015

4Art Gallery Starts an Art Scene



Robin Monique Rios first became a gallery owner in 2003, when she and Jerod Schmidt opened the 4Art Gallery in Pilsen within 6 months of finishing art school.

If this sounds bold, Robin makes it sound like a pragmatic move.  She says she was raised by tough Southern women, having a job was always a priority. She started working for hotels while she was still in high school, later she’d switch to the telecom industry.  She worked on business and corporate accounts at MCI, which came in handy when she went to write the gallery’s business plan.

Meanwhile, she did well in corporate and male dominated environments.  She says she got every job she applied for, and she advanced at every job she got.  She says she has a learning disability so she always struggled in school, but in the workplace she compensated, she never let anyone see her struggle to learn.  She always had money to spend, but she wasn’t a shopper, so she spent it going to nightclubs and looking out for her friends.

That part is important, that she felt successful in the corporate world, or at least valued and well paid, with an active social life on the side, because after about 10 years of it, she fell into a depression anyway, and she says it was because “I wasn’t living my life.”

It is true that the year was 1999, MCI/WorldCom was poised for some problems.  There was lots of shifting around within the organization, though Robin says her employer would accommodate her if she refused a particular job.

Today Robin puts great importance in spiritual expression, and back then, she wasn’t doing that.  She says she was having thoughts of suicide, she was functioning on the outside, but in secret, she was thinking about how she might end it all.

Then one night she switched on the television, and she saw a commercial for the Illinois Institute of Art.  “It was as if the t.v. illuminated,” she says. “It was as if God himself was talking to me.” 




The Illinois Institute of Art was founded in 1916 as the Commercial Arts School; in 1999 it was promoting a new campus embedded in the Merchandise Mart, which was still dominated by showrooms for furniture and interior design.  Today the school promotes its Chicago context, with its advertising agencies, world class restaurants, high fashion and design.  In the commercial Robin saw “they were describing all the things they were going to offer, and I wanted to learn all those things.” 

She had some trepidation about going back to school.  She doesn’t test well. “I don’t comprehend what the questions are asking of me.”  But she put that aside and asked the admissions counselor to just pitch the program.  The campus was small, a class might have only 5 or 6 students. “The instructors will work with you to make sure you have what you need to learn,” he assured her, and that turned out to be the case.  “It was the best thing I ever did,” she says now, “I didn’t miss a single day of class.”

She met Jerod Schmidt at school.  Their personalities were so sympathetic she says their reactions to life were often in sync, and after graduation they were both a little depressed by the job prospects they saw at other people’s businesses.  They started talking about opening their own business - a fine art gallery that would also offer framing and graphic services.  So they wrote the business plan and got a $20,000 small business loan from Accion Chicago.  That seemed to be the easy part.

The hard part seemed to be finding a good space.  They started looking in Wicker Park first, because they thought they needed an arts scene to bring in customers.  This was back in 2003, the Around the Coyote art fair still drew tens of thousands of people through the Wicker Park galleries, and the Flat Iron building had been buzzing with artists for over a decade, but Wicker Park rents were so high she figured they’d have to bring in $10,000 a month just to meet expenses.

She was driving home from a particularly discouraging day scouting overpriced spaces in questionable proximity to the heart of the scene, when she passed the Podmajersky buildings on Halsted and saw a “For Rent” sign in one of the windows.  On a whim, she stopped the car and called the number.  John Podmajersky III answered the phone and offered to show her some spaces on the spot.




Deanna Isaacs would write about the John III and his plans for the family business in the Chicago Reader later that year.  It was his father, John Podmajersky Jr, who had bought the properties, starting in the late 1950s.  Over 40 years he accumulated more than 100 of them and renovated them as shabby-chic live-work spaces for artists. The designs were playful, he opened floor plans, added spiral staircases, clerestory windows, made covered passageways outside.  The backyards were joined into shared private gardens furnished with architectural curiosities salvaged from other buildings.  But the fronts were left relatively nondescript – they had a uniform look, just slightly off-beat in their paint jobs, the artistry went on behind the fronts.

His son wanted to bring more energy to the front.  He saw the renovations around the UIC campus approaching down Halsted Street.  He didn’t want artist’s studios with their back to the street, he told Isaacs he wanted “artist entrepreneurs” who would open commercial businesses in the storefronts.  Isaacs interviewed 2 of Podmajersky’s new tenants for the article – one was an art consultant for corporate buyers, the other was Robin Rios.  She and Jerod had opened the 4Art Gallery in a 2,800 sf space at 1932 S. Halsted earlier that year.



The space had a great accessible floor plan, storefront windows and reasonable rent, the only thing it didn’t have was a scene.  So she and Jerod set out to generate one.  The Podmarjersky’s already organized an Open Studios night each year.  The galleries in River North drew crowds by marketing 1st Fridays, open gallery nights when the public was encouraged to wander through on the same day every month.  Robin and Jerod began to market 2nd Fridays in Pilsen.

What was trickier about Pilsen was that most of the studios were part of that hidden trail of spaces the older Podmajersky built.  So Jerod made maps of where all the artist studios were – they printed fliers and gave copies to the other artists to promote themselves, they spent hours handing them out downtown, and at other arts events. Robin still remembers approaching an established gallerist to ask her for advice.  The woman was incredulous.  “Why would I tell you how to start a gallery?” she wanted to know.  Robin and Jerod had the opposite instinct – they believed they’d be more successful if their neighbors were too.

In the end, they were successful at bringing crowds to Pilsen, and even at helping Podmajersky fill his storefronts, but it wasn’t clear it all worked to sell a lot of art.  A few years later the storefronts were emptying out again, 4Art had paid off its loan but Robin still wasn’t drawing a reliable salary. One departing gallerist told the Reader she thought 2nd Fridays were mostly a party where people came to drink wine, eat the cheese and crackers, and watch each other look at art.

Yet on any given 2nd Friday the crowds still come to Pilsen.  They wander the artists’ studios, they rub shoulders with each other, and they look at art with the person who made it right there to chat with them about it.  And the party and the art may be sympathetic in non-commercial ways.

They’re both expressive activities, for instance. As a place where people come to show themselves and to check each other out, a social scene is a sort of theater for mutual display. People hone their personal style, stimulated by people they see around them.  And to the extent their tastes evolve together as they participate in the pageant, the scene is also a sort of collective activity for spinning webs of meaning, for creating a context where each individual’s small acts of expression take their significance.

The curator Claire Molek says when she set out to revive a curated version of open gallery night in River North, her goal was to make the art scene more “transparent” -- more accessible to the public who might not feel conversant in art, but also more open to participants in the gallery system itself, who might be tempted to stay in their own box and protect it from poaching without a nudge to step out for a collective project.

That kind of transparency and context might be more important for an art world now, in a postmodern landscape, where critics have less authority to define direction and meaning for whole schools of people than they did even a few decades ago. Selling art could be an after effect.




As an exercise, Robin recently sat with an intern at the 4Art Gallery and did a Google search for images of abstract painting. Scrolling through, they saw a lot of repetition, treatments and effects they’d seen before in other people’s art, repeating again and again through the Google scroll.  It’s as if they’ve been mutually informed, communicating by invisible threads.  Robin tells her intern that what will be new about her work as a fine artist isn’t necessarily her style, or her technique. “What’s new is your connection to the world.”

Robin does take pride in her technique.  She describes herself as a digital painter, and she considers digital art the most recent art movement to point a whole new direction in the field, the way Impressionism did.  She recalls being amazed at the possibilities opened up by tools like Photoshop. “It blew my mind,” she says.  But in the mid 2000s, critics and artists weren’t sure using digital tools made real art.  And Robin herself is a little critical of artists who are too free with Photoshop filters and effects.  She uses her own photographs, makes her own effects with the camera, she’s proud that photographers who looked at her work couldn’t believe it was digital because they couldn’t see pixels, even with a glass.

At first she was making photographs of fairly traditional genres – landscapes and buildings in picturesque decompose.  But her signature, her “brand” she even calls it, her particular connection to a subject matter, began take shape when a friend gave her an X-Ray and asked her to make it into a piece for a 2004 exhibit called The Devil Show.

 “It spoke to me on so many levels,” she says.  She’d been sick a lot as a kid, and always with exotic illnesses, including a bone disease that fused her hip and put an end to her skateboarding days.  As an artist she came to believe her physical ailments were an expression of soul sickness, the unhealthy spirit she’d got by suppressing her true self, by not living her life.

She’d been so nervous about showing that first piece she didn’t want to attend the opening.  But when she arrived there were people waiting to talk to her about it.  Some of them wanted to give her X-Rays and MRIs of their own for her to make into art.   Eleven years later, she has made more than 40 pictures in a series she calls Observation.  She says the Observation series is about stripping away layers of social and personal constraints in order to reconnect with the world as our true selves.




As a gallery owner, Robin emphasizes that she represents artists who make fine art, as opposed to what she calls “decorative art.” The distinction must hinge on that goal – making art that expresses a real connection to the world – but since the goal is ephemeral, the distinction is also a moving line.

Robin says she’s known too many older artists who’ve had some success, but have become embittered misanthropes in the process.  They got sucked into a cycle where appreciation of their work seems to wax and wane, and they find themselves making the same kind of thing over and over again.  Either they’re trying to fill a large order for a hotel buyer with lots of rooms to fill, or they’re trying to recapture that landscape that sold, to hit the stylistic notes that brought some recognition before.

She says the critics, who could theoretically give artists feedback and push them to re-approach the world anew, aren’t much use anymore.  When Dan Davidson was in art school [profiled on The Hardscrabbler in April 2015], there was a so-called Artforum Mafia, a clique of critics whose essays defined the terms artists could use to make sense of their own careers, whether they followed their guidance or rebelled against it.  It doesn’t sound like today’s critics carry that kind of authority – or necessarily even seek it.  “No one’s writing long articles anymore,” Robin says.  “It’s all just Q and A.”

If the critics have stepped back, it sounds like gallery owners have stepped up to guide the show: they scout out what’s important, and neglect what’s not; they cultivate artists and educate buyers to appreciate them.  In fact, that’s pretty much what the old ArtForum Mafia was afraid would happen – it’s the kind of art market feedback loop they pictured when they argued about the commoditization of art.

And the commercial results have been fabulous.  At least in the secondary market, after pieces leave the gallery and are sold again at auction, the market has moved from one record to another, shouted on by ever more astonishing prices for superstar art.  In 2014, worldwide sales for art sold at auction topped $15 billion, up 300% from 2004, according the ArtPrice annual market report.  In the 1980s, top prices for individual artworks had stagnated around $10 million in the western market; in the 2000s a market emerged for works priced $100 million or more.

But behind the shouting around the superstars, the auction market has grown broader too, as in more art, made by a larger field of artists, finding a larger audience.  Partly, there are just more fabulously rich buyers from more parts of the globe.  They’re trying to establish new museums, or they’re building their personal collections, diversifying their investments.  China’s auction market has surpassed New York’s every year since 2010.  It’s helped shift the whole balance of genres.  Europeans and Americans buy paintings above all else, but ArtPrice reports that sales of drawings have taken a new scale under the influence of the Chinese.

But maybe the most encouraging point is that even as the celebrity paintings get all the press, the vast majority of sales, 80% of them, are of pieces priced less than $5,000.  In 2013, that segment represented nearly 300,000 works of art sold, twice as many as 10 years before.  By 2014, sales of contemporary artists brought in $1.2 billion in revenue, which was $1 billion more than 2004.

Auction sales are where speculative buyers have access to bid up prices, but a vigorous secondary market is good for art sold in galleries too, especially if interest is growing in emerging contemporary work.  It may be that in fine art, as everywhere else, it’s harder to establish a canon of important work than it once was.  The conversation is ever more diffuse, it’s confusing, but there’s more opportunity to be part of it. Especially if it transacts at a local level, in your neighborhood, for instance, like it does in ours.



By 2009, the Pilsen art scene was wearing Robin out.  John Podmajersky had succeeded in filling his storefronts, but then his all efforts seemed to backfire.  Robin says she didn’t have a problem with John the way some people did – she never thought he was responsible for marketing the district, for instance, but she did think he went overboard on the rules.  He had rules about the hours his artist entrepreneurs should be open, and about the appearance of their window displays.  And then the rents kept going up, Jerod had moved to Portland, and Robin was tired of promoting the scene.  By 2009, she was ready to close the 4Art Gallery.

Then she got a call from Michael Zhou, son of ShanZou Zhou in Bridgeport.   Robin had seen the Zhou brothers at the occasional 2nd Friday event in Pilsen before, Michael told her his father and uncle had respect for what she she’d accomplished, they wanted to create something similar in Bridgeport, and they wanted her to be part of it.  Robin says it was an emotional meeting – she was flattered, but she was also exhausted.  In the end, the vision Michael laid out for building an art mecca in Bridgeport won her over.

Robin says the space was very raw when she moved in, her own space it was smaller, but it was also more manageable, she represents about half the artists she once did, and she’s part of a vibrant art scene she isn’t responsible for generating herself.  Today, the Zhou B Center thrums on 3rd Fridays – from the basement to the roof, and there are hosts of other shows throughout the month.




The 4Art Gallery is located on the 4th floor of the Zhou B. Center at 1029 W. 35th Street.  Robin displays works from her own Observation series at the back of the gallery.  This is my favorite one.  It’s an X-Ray of a human skull, painted in with more than 20 other images: there are train tracks burrowing into the depths, and gothic windows opening to the light.  There are the creaking gears of thought packed in a frontal lobe, and there are doves in flight just outside the skull walls – soaring on invisible currents.  It evokes all the limits and possibilities of the human mind.

On my most recent visit, I told Robin about the things I saw in it, and I was gratified when she told me it was very similar to what she saw.  It was only walking home afterwards that I remembered we had talked about that same picture before.  Did I see those things myself?  Or did she point them out to me and they took root in my mind somewhere, pushing to the surface as I looked at it again?  I don’t remember, but either way, as I start my collection of Bridgeport art, that will be the first picture I buy.