Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Bill Douglas Finds His Footing at Project Onward

Bill Douglas has been making art since he was a solitary kid, tromping around in the woods outside Knoxville Tennessee. He built houses out of sticks out there, whole apartment buildings, fantastic constructions that no one but him would ever see.

His family was embedded in Tennessee since the 1850s, when his great great grandfather Douglas came from Scotland - his parents lived their whole lives there without leaving it. None of his immediate family is left in Knoxville now. His sister has settled in Nashville. Bill came to Chicago to go to art school in the 1990s; he came to Bridgeport in 2014 as an artist with Project Onward, a studio for artists with mental illness or disabilities at the Bridgeport Art Center.

Project Onward connected him to an audience. It’s also tied him into a neighborhood, which you could make a case is just as important. We all need some context in which to operate.

For the audience looking at art, maybe also for artists making it, putting art in context often entails finding some way to categorize it. In the art world, there’s a whole social apparatus for doing that: schools, critics, galleries collaborate to evaluate art work, to make ways to talk about it. Mapping it into categories is something to start from.

Project Onward participates in a category called outsider art. Critics coined the term in the 1970s, and then promptly began to argue about what it was. You can describe it as art made outside the critic’s apparatus, but then what happens if the critic and the collector start paying attention to it? Or you can describe it as art made by an artist who is self taught.

Bill sometimes says he isn’t technically an outsider artist because he went to art school. He studied painting at the University of Tennessee. He spent a year studying the epic paintings of 18th century French artists like David and Poussin, he studied print making, and abstract art. Later, he studied painting and ceramics at UIC.

After art school Bill got a job at a therapeutic day school, working with elementary school kids for 13 years. He loved that job, some of those kids were coming from highly unstable environments, he got to know them, saw them respond under the attentions they got at school.

He got married too, his wife, Kelly, was a travel agent, before that industry collapsed, they travelled a lot together, got to see the world. Bill’s life was good for a lot of years.

Then, in 2013, things started to fall apart. He lost his parents first. And his job, and his wife. He had been diagnosed with mental illness before that, it was part of his background for much of his life. It was manageable if he attended to it. When things were coming apart he couldn’t do that. There was a surge of clinical depression, and schizophrenia. There was a narcotic interlude. He watched a friend die, watched the paramedics bring her back to life and watched her go back out almost without missing a beat. 

Bill took the lesson himself. He quit the drugs cold turkey and cut off ties with everyone he’d been using with. He found his way to an art therapy program at Thresholds. It was his art therapist at Thresholds, Kathy Osler who picked him out as a candidate for Project Onward.

In an essay they’ve written to accompany an Intuit Gallery art exhibit called Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow, curators Kenneth Burkhart and Lisa Stone describe appreciation for outsider art taking different paths in Europe and the United States. 

In Europe, the genre was informed by doctors collecting the art of psychiatric patients. Institutionalized, socially isolated, their work seemed to represent pure personal vision drawn from deep psychic sources, untouched by fashion.

In the United States, it was fed by an interest in folk art that traces back to WPA projects to document a distinctive American cultural heritage. Art valued as the expression of local traditions more than individual genius, the artists themselves might be anonymous.

Bill relates to both those strands, at least to the extent he has lived with mental illness, and that his art has been informed by tradition. But with the happy caveat that as an artist at Project Onward he isn’t isolated or anonymous.

Project Onward screens its applicants for talent, and also for their willingness to grow, to develop as professional artists. 

When Bill submitted his portfolio for consideration, he was drawing forests from the vantage of someone lying on this back on the forest floor - trees with leafy branches ascending toward the sun, dense with birds, often encircled by streams, or mountain ranges, or tombstones. 

Bill says he isn’t so interested in perspective or shading, he is more interested in other kinds of information. His drawings are dense with it, complex patterns, solid shapes sometimes filled in with tiny patterns of birds and leaves and other creatures indicated only by their eyes. 

They are reminiscent of the piece-work patterns of quilts, laced together with a profusion of stitchery, like the ones his mother, her mother and her aunt used to sew in Tennessee. He keeps a news clipping on the studio wall about the prolific quilting of his great aunt Georgia Mize. The first line reads “Georgia Mize doesn’t think she’s an artist. She just makes quilts."

Project Onward encourages its artists to put in regular hours at the studio. They manage sales of the artist’s work, and split the proceeds with the artists - Project Onward's portion helps keep the studio going. There is a studio manager and volunteers who circulate among the artists, offering encouragement, making suggestions.

Being present in the studio has definitely made Bill’s work more visible to collectors. Collectors can come through anytime the studio is open, and things really buzz on 3rd Fridays, Bridgeport’s open studio night. Bill’s met a couple collectors who have shown particular interest in his work, he describes them as patrons because they’ve been so supportive of him and his development as an artist.

On any given afternoon at the studio, there are a couple dozen artists at work. They are all quietly engaged in their work, but friendly, happy to pause to chat about it. Bill likes to circulate and interview his fellow artists for short videos. He’s made some good friends there.

And then about a year ago, he was able to move into an apartment in a Bridgeport 6 flat owned by Project Onward’s Executive Director. It’s affordable so he’s got an anchor amid the rising neighborhood rents, and it’s right on Throop Street, so he’s close to the studio. That’s a big deal. 

Bill’s friend David Hence takes the train all the way from Richter Park to get to the studio - the trip can take hours. If he arrives early David may while spend an hour drawing streetscapes and passersby from the windows of Bridgeport Coffee, imagining their lives comic book style panels.  When he works late and the trains are even more infrequent, Bill lets him sleep on his couch. 

Other friends from the studio will drop by his apartment to watch a game now and then. And Mike Pocius, who volunteers at the studio, lives a couple blocks away on Racine. Mike is restless instigator, when he’s not out and about he sits in his yard chatting with whoever stops by. Bill often stops by, or accompanies him, they organize the occasional impromptu art show together.

Working from the Project Onward studio, Bill’s perspective started to change. First it changed from drawings of forests, looking up into the trees, to drawings of Bubbly Creek, looking down into the water. There are wavy reflections of trees on the surface, crossed with currents of imaginary fish, their numbers probably always a little fanciful, considering the notorious quality of the water, they’ve grown more diverse and more oceanic as he worked.

And still stitched with intricate detail. Right up until a year ago, when Bill’s life took another turn. He had a stroke. He was alone in his apartment — this was a different apartment out in Berwyn. He was alone for 3 days, passing in and out of consciousness, calling for help.

It was Kathy Osler who found him. Kathy isn’t his art therapist anymore, she was just stopping by as a friend. “She saved my life,” Bill says. He’s mostly recovered, though the stroke still affect his balance and coordination, and he still doesn’t have the use of his right arm.

How do you come to terms with that, Mike Pocius asks, when so much of your identity is wrapped up in making art, and then something happens to the arm you make it with? 

Intuit’s catalog for Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow describes how Chicago’s people and arts institutions have been exceptionally receptive to art “from beyond the academically self identified center.” Then it goes on to identify Chicago as the center for the study and cultivation of outsider art. 

It relates how, as early as 1941, the Fine Arts Club of Chicago presented self-taught negro artist Horace Pippen in a gallery alongside a show of the flamboyant European surrealist Salvador Dali. Bukhart and Stone say it was significant that Pippen was shown not as a folk artist, but as a fine artist. They say Dali was insulted when Pippen asked him “Are you an artist too?”

Imagine Pippen as the figure of Chicago, trying to strike up a conversation with New York. For much of the 20th century New York was the center of an art world that favored the modern, the abstract, high theory, and a critical remove from the marketplace. Chicago was all marketplace. It built its reputation on its status as an intersection of thoroughfares that connect more distant places, an entrepot between other endpoints, multiple centers. 

The purist would describe the center as the place of privileged access to matters of ultimate concern, the circle where talented initiates build a common project, everything outside it sort of fades into lesser significance. 

But if you stand among multiple centers, with competing demands, then it’s the points where they meet, clash, connect that have special access to vital energies. They loose that access if they turn inward, are less open to influence from outside.

Burkhart and Stone suggest using the ecological metaphor of the ecotone, the transition zone between two populations or environments, like an oceanic tide pool. The creatures that thrive there must adapt to survive in air, and under water, they take nourishment from the tidal flux. The authors evoke a “tide pool of the mind” nourished by the unceasing interplay between outsider and academic, creativity and commerce. 

Bill Swislow describes old Maxwell Street market as just such a zone. His essay Chicago We Own It describes professors and students from the School of the Art Institute training their tastes there, learning to pick objects of beauty and wonder out of the flux. He says it gave rise to a different mode of collection: the “more is more aesthetic”, the studio crammed with artifacts, the personal reference library that is both an expression of the artist’s personal vision of the world, and a living source to work from.

The tide pool might be an especially useful metaphor for the artist imagining the context from where he can practice his work. Bill Douglas’ Tennessee roots and his experience with mental illness both connect him to the category. But at their roots, both those sources flourished in a kind of protective isolation — the dream painted from inside hospital walls, the folk art flowering in the hamlet — and some of the first collectors seemed to think they got their power from that.

Bill cut loose from his Tennessee roots. Years later, he was cut loose again in a more radical way. It was more tsunami than tide, Bill’s art didn’t thrive under the experience. He had to get a foothold, first. Project Onward, an institution with an interest, helped him do that. Now that he has the foothold, he’s immersed in an environment conducive to work.

Bill says that when he was alone for those 3 days after the stroke, he experienced a kind of semi-euphoric state, he figures it was his brain protecting him from fear as he waited for help. Some of his first drawings and paintings when he came back to the studio were of neurons and their matrix, brain structures, with notes added about their functions, and the symptoms of damage.

The euphoria was short lived. Recuperation has been frustrating. His right hand couldn’t execute the details it once could. For awhile, he experimented with paper cut outs, revising themes from his intricate drawings.

His friends from the studio have been supportive. His patrons visited him in the hospital and stay in touch on the phone when they’re not at the studio.  Mike Pocius had suffered a stroke a year before Bill did - the common experience strengthened their bond. 

Mike says when he found Bill particularly discouraged one day, he told him “You’ve been making art your whole life, you are an artist, so the things you make are art.” It doesn’t matter if the drawings he makes with his left hand don’t look the same as the ones he used to do with his right.

More recently, Bill’s been drawing Lilith, the unruly first wife of Adam. Legend has it God made Eve after Lilith flew away.  She’s had recent career as a feminist hero, but also a longer more sinister one as a seductive demon, a danger infants and women in childbirth. For awhile, Bill painted her in the style of a comic book heroine, with swirls of entangling hair. Now he figures he’s finished with her, as a topic.

Bill says he’s been wondering recently where he fits as an artist. The question partly inspired when he was told he couldn’t participate in a recent show of outsider art in New York because he wasn’t self taught. He’s not preoccupied with the problem though. In June, he’s scheduled to have a solo show at Project Onward, and a show at Zhou B Art Center at the same time.

In the afternoon at the studio, the walls crowded with artworks and washed with sunlight, the room humming with productivity, Bill is like a starfish with a good grip on the rocks. He’s surrounded by fellow artists, open to influence, he’s alive to what’s next.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

A Life in Artland

Mike Pocius at a backyard art show,
photo by Rose Regula

In the mid 2000s, Mike Pocius wrote art criticism for the The Lumpen magazine under the title “ArtFag in ArtLand.” Like the name of his punk band, “The Cunts,” it was incorrect, but not to be insulting. He sounds a little apologetic when he says they called themselves cunts, back in the 1970s, to indicate they were sensitive like women. “All the bands were macho back then.” Bridgeport, especially the Bridgeport of his youth, was not known for cultivating young men with an expressive streak. “They’d call you a fag and say ‘Why don’t you just move to the north side?’” 

18th Street, Pilsen, from Mike's Kind of Town,
a collection of Mike Pocius photographs

You could say the Pocius family started life in Bridgeport with a tilt towards the incorrect. Mike’s great grandmother, a widow with a young son moved here from Lithuania in the 1890s on the strength of a marriage proposal. Then when she got here the groom never showed. “Typical Bridgeport asshole,” Mike says wryly. “We’ve still got some of those.”

Her son, Mike’s grandfather, flourished here anyway. He bought half a dozen properties on Racine and ran a grocery store from one of them, though he kept a soft spot for the struggles of his neighbors, and his cash register was always stuffed with IOUs.  Most of the properties passed out of the family’s hands, except the one at 32nd and Racine where Mike and his brother Al Pocius both live now.

“This was where all the alcoholics, the ones with women problems were stashed.” He says they called it The Pit. It was also the place all the kids on the block came to hang out. On warm afternoons, Mike sits out in the backyard, the neighbors still stop by to see what’s up.

Mike’s father was an electrical engineer at one of the packing plants on Pershing Road. He kept the elevators running.  On his time off, he was an amateur photographer. He’d hang out at the Malelo Camera shop on Halsted Street, and Malelo sold him the latest German cameras.

Some of his co-workers at the packing plant were artists and musicians, he’d bring them back to the house after work, like the jazz drummer Walter Perkins. “That’s how I got all into music,” Mike says today.

The Bridgeport of his youth was a neighborhood of tribes. “There were the city workers, the burglar contingent, the druggies — we were the weird hippies, smoking weed.” He recalls hanging out on Racine, smoking pot, when other guys came by trying to rally them to chase some black guys off Halsted Street.

“As a kid you would see stuff and know it was fucked up.” He says he and his siblings were lucky, their parents didn’t really see color.  His father brought black co-workers back to the house all the time — the neighbors didn’t give them a hard time because his father was a hard drinking no bullshit kind of guy. 

Mike was in Grant Park for that infamous Democratic National Convention in 1968, snapping pictures.  “All these famous people were there, Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Sonny, from Sonny and Cher.” He says the police issued a warning they’d have to vacate the park by 11pm, “or else the clubs were doing to come down. And they did.”

He describes the police advancing in a line at the stroke of the clock with their billy clubs drawn. He says the young and the fast mostly escaped the melee, it was the older people, the journalists and passers by who got clubbed. The transit system was all shut down so they spent the night on a south loop rooftop, drinking wine and smoking weed. 

Bridgeport was like Fort Knox during the convention he recalls, the police were everywhere. When he came home the next morning they saw him with his long hair and told him to go back where he belongs. “I belong here,” he told them.

Vietnam Vet, from Mike's Kind of Town

By the early 1970s, Mike’s peers were graduating high school, getting drafted, sent off to Vietnam. Mike says most of the ones who didn’t die there were dead within 5 years of coming back.

Mike got drafted in 1972, but they sent him to Washington to serve in the military police — he recalls this as one of life’s ironies. “I hated the police.” His sister Jan chuckles that a neighborhood boss offered to get him a place in the police academy on his return. She had boyfriends who were dying for a chance like that. Not her brother though. 

He went to college on the GI Bill instead, studied photography at Columbia College. He’d been taught school should be practical, a way to make a living, and he did make a living as a photographer, taking pictures of weddings, family portraits. But he also caught an enthusiasm for street photography, inspired by the likes of Robert Frank and especially Garry Winogrand. 

Winogrand was just getting in trouble for his picture book Women are Beautiful when Mike was in school - his celebration of the female form came out as the women’s movement was gaining momentum. Mike appreciates his exuberance, the way he’d go to Coney Island shooting from two cameras at once, trying to capture “how the world looks photographed.”

Feelin' the Music from Mike's Kind of Town

In the Pocius family, Mike’s brother Al Pocius is said to be the one with the natural artistic talent for drawing and painting, but Al says it was Mike who introduced him to a circle of artists he was meeting at Columbia, including Tom Palazollo, a painter and experimental filmmaker who taught classes at Daley College. Palazollo was making a name for himself with his straight from the street documentaries of ethnic parades and crowded delis, the funny relatives at your bridal shower. 

Mike says it was Palazzolo who got him interested in making weird films and stuff, and the 1970s were a good time to be making weird stuff in Chicago.  There was an alternative arts space movement gathering around Hubbard and State Street, fueled by a surge in graduates coming out of art schools from the 1960s. Artemesia, ARC and N.A.M.E. Gallery: they were opening their doors about where Harvey Zorbaugh described bohemia flourishing in The Gold Coast and the Slum some 60 years before.

By the late 1980s and 90s, the alternative galleries were seeking grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the NEA was encouraging them to trade in their collective structure for boards of directors — the transition made them seem even more like the new art establishment to young artists trying to get their work shown. Now alternative galleries are sometimes described as a stage in the artistic career, a proving ground where you practice your voice, and get discovered by the mainstream market. It’s true, it sometimes works that way, but in the moment, the energy of taking part in it all must have seemed like an end in itself.

In 1977, the year after Mayor Daley died, N.A.M.E. Gallery held a show called Daley’s Tomb. Mike remembers it as an artist’s wake — it drew big crowds of people come to pay homage to the Mayor, but not all in the same way. Tom Palazzolo showed a painting he called Presumption, modeled on Rafael’s Assumption of Christ, it showed the Mayor ascending toward heaven, leaving a crowd of retainers below. He asked Mike Pocius to bring one of his Bridgeport bands to play the opening.

It happened that Mike had just come back from New York City, where he and some friends had seen the Ramones play at Hurrah’s on 53rd Street. “It was an epiphany,” he says. "Like going to church and the doors of heaven open up.” It wasn’t hippy music, but it wasn’t disco either — it was fast and edgy, outsider music, and anyone could do it. “You didn’t need permission.” 

Back in Chicago Mike rallied what might be Chicago’s first punk rock band. He wasn’t in it, “I was the Malcolm McLaren,” he says. They called themselves “Quick Release,” partly because they’d come together fast for the gig. They got one song into their punk rock set at Daley’s Tomb before an enraged attendee attacked the band. “He didn’t know we were all from Bridgeport,” Mike recalls wryly, “he got his ass kicked pretty good.”  Afterwards Palazollo told him the attendees thought the fisticuffs were part of the performance.

Both Mike and Al Pocius played in The Cunts. The radio charts were topped by singles like “Best of My Love” by the Emotions and “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” by Andy Gibb. The Cunts were singing songs about “Throwing Rocks at Your Window,” and getting “Chemicals in the Mail.”

If the lyrics sounded antisocial, the DIY culture was vigorously collaborative. Mike says there were maybe 50 people in the Chicago punk scene in the early years. They played neighborhood bars, like Spaceport, which was next door to Bernice’s on Halsted. They started their own record label - Disturbing Records.

They’d record in the Polish Row studios on 47th Street and bring the recording to a record pressing plant at 26th and Wallace. Mike says it was owned by a Mexican guy who pressed ethnic records - Polish and Latin music, gospel and blues. “We told him our name, and it came back with an asterisk” - The C*nts - “It was too much for him. So we left it like that.”

They’d distribute their records at shows, and advertise them in zines. “We had pen pals all over the world,” Mike says, and they were putting out records for other bands who wanted to be on their label: Heavy Manners (a ska band), the Meaty Buys (with a wink to the stockyards), the Problem Dogs (Lithuanian punk). “We were idiots,” Mike reminisces fondly, but “if you group together there’s more power in it.”

By the mid 1990s, Disturbing Records was producing music, Mike was taking pictures, and Mike’s friend Ken Hirte opened what would become Gallery Chicago on Milwaukee Ave. In 2005 Hirte told Grant Pick at the Chicago Reader he was drinking at a bar with friends when they saw a van roll up advertising a “fine artist” on the side. Ken made a joke that he wanted to be “a not so fine artist,” and soon they’d formed the Not So Fine Artist Society in the shop where he’d run his screen printing business.

Gallery Chicago was a gathering as much as a gallery.  “It was kind of like what people fantasize about,” Mike says “a lot of old artists get together every Friday, drink beer, talk and bullshit, and have shows. This went on for 30 years.”

Pick reports that Gallery Chicago was showing Mike Pocius’ street photography when Gary Stochl walked in one afternoon in January 2003 and said he wanted to show his work there. 

“He was a really eccentric dude,” Mike recalls. “He lived in Stickney with his parents, he never had a job, he’d take the train downtown and take pictures for 8 hours every day.” When his parents died, he needed to generate some income to keep up with the property taxes. He looked to the piles of pictures he’d never shown anybody before.

Stochl sounds like the anti-Winogrand. At least Mike remembered him as someone who could make a roll of film last two weeks, waiting patiently for the perfect composition, and his visions were dark - no comely women caught enjoying an ice cream cone for him - the critics said he caught his subjects at moments of unguarded loneliness, looking grim.

Gallery Chicago gave him his first solo show, and the fellows of the not so fine artists society encouraged him to take his pictures to Columbia College. He ended up in the office of Bob Thall, who was the head of Columbia’s photography department. Thall describes himself as having been a little impatient, flipping through the stack of photographs Stochl had brought in a paper bag, before he realized they were remarkable.

By 2005 Stochl had prints in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He’d had a solo show at the Chicago Cultural Center, and Columbia College printed a book of his work. Thall wrote the preface: he described Stochl’s pictures as a rare combination of personal viewpoint and formalist composition. He thought it was exceptional that Stochl had kept a steady pace of work for decades without encouragement, or any kind of peer group, until he’d walked into Gallery Chicago. Pick’s Chicago Reader story said Gallery Chicago was a place Stochl fit in. 

Then, at some point since, Stochl dropped out of sight. Mike says he ran into him at Reckless Records a couple years ago and he had stopped taking pictures altogether. “He’s a guy who could make $5,000 a photo. He says ‘I quit my art rep,’ ‘I quit my gallery.’ He doesn’t want nothing to do with it anymore.”

The annual Bridgeport Art on Cardboard show is production of the Birdhouse Museum, another informal society, this one usually instigated by one of the Pocius brothers. Al Pocius says he and his friends were showing art on cardboard in Pilsen galleries back in the 1990s, the show in 2002 was just the first one in Bridgeport. It was also the first iteration of the Birdhouse Museum: they emptied all the furniture out of his apartment at The Pit and hung the show on the walls. Al invited 13 artists to submit 13 pieces on 4 x 8 pieces of cardboard.  The format was loosely inspired by the art of Ray Johnson who made himself known, among artists especially, for exchanging art through the mail with his friends.

John Salhus was one of the artists in that first Bridgeport show. He’d only recently arrived in Chicago from art school in Minneapolis. Bridgeport was very never-a-city-so-real back then. This was before the Co-Prosperity Sphere. John says Edmar was bartending at Kaplan’s Liquors on Tuesday nights, and the bar would fill up with Lumpens. But Morgan Street was still populated by guys who’d shout down the street to their buddies in thick Chicago accents, and the occasional 14 year old gang banger on the corner. John says his neighbors would stop to look in his windows, “You could not hide.” He chuckles about the neighbor who stood in his doorway to introduce himself, offering his services as a neutral party if he had problems with gang bangers, or for breaking and entry. [“Any building, padlocks don’t matter.”]

The art on cardboard show felt like he’d found his way into the heart of what he’d come for when he left Minneapolis. He used his 13 panels to depict boxers at the moment of impact, when the mind departs. He loved that his pieces were hung between artists like Michael Hernandez de Luna, who showed his postage stamp art internationally, and Olivia Ortega, a 15 year old girl who’d never been in an art show before. “We got to show off our stuff, invite our friends, everything is super affordable, people were selling out.” In retrospect he wishes he hadn’t sold most of those boxer paintings, he would like to see them again now.

John also likes to tell the story of how he met Mrs. Pocius, Mike and Al’s mother.  She greeted him with a big smile after he’d seen the show, with her old lady death grip on his arm, saying “Did you enjoy the show? Did you see everything? Great. Now get the hell out.” The smile never left her face and he’s been invited back for week-end cookouts ever since.

He hosted the next two art on cardboard shows at his own studio on Morgan Street.  The artists would show up with food for a party; one year someone brought a bartender in a tux to keep an eye on the liquor. He says the shows were great, but they were labor intensive - not just the set up but making sure everybody got paid afterwards — after the second show he decided he would stick to painting.

But the Birdhouse Museum still organizes the Bridgeport Art on Cardboard show every year. This year’s show, the 18th annual, is scheduled to open on November 30th at the Research House for Asian Art at 3217 S. Morgan, between John’s studio and the Co-Prosperity Sphere. 

Veteran from Mike's Kind of Town

In 2006, Mike says he first saw Project Onward, a nonprofit arts program for people with developmental disabilities and mental illness, at an arts expo at the Merchandise Mart. “I like to collect outsider art,” he says “they were looking for volunteers.” It has been a lasting match. He organized a few of the Bridgeport Art on Cardboard Shows there, under the banner of the Birdhouse Museum. “The artists just love it,” he says.  The shows were open to all, the materials were cheap, by the time of the 2013 show, DNAInfo reported one of the artists had created 6,000 works on cardboard.

Mike describes his role at Project Onward as Mr. Encourageable, and the encouragement seems to goes both ways. “The folks at Project Onward have so many things that could hold them back, that could make you want to stay home under a comforter and hide from the world. 

“But they come down here and they are ready for battle on that artistic field, man, they just go to work and create. It makes you say ‘What’s our excuse?’” 

One morning about 18 months ago, Mike woke up and the right side of his body was strangely numb. He was slow to realize he’d had a stroke - he’d been in excellent health all his life. He’s mostly worked his way back from it, but it’s been a struggle.

On a warm September afternoon, he sits outside in his back yard, and friends and neighbors drop by as they have pretty much always done — Carl Virgo, an abstract painter, and his sister Jan, and then Bill Douglas, an artist friend from Project Onward, who had a stroke a few months after Mike did. 

“Me and Bill have some kind of bond because we both went through this stroke crap. We try to keep each other on the straight and narrow,” Mike says. 

Bill credits Mike with encouraging him to learn how to draw with his left hand. He says he’s basically re-learning how to make art all over again. But throughout his life, art has been something he could pour himself into completely. 

“It’s therapeutic,” Mike says, “It helps you work through things, draw out your intuitions, and see how people react to it.” And if you find someone who responds to some kernel of what you are trying to say, that’s great.

Is it important to have an audience? They both say no, they would make art anyway, even if no one was looking.

“Of course I’m lying,” Mike adds amiably after a pause. “Everyone wants an audience.” But it could be 5 people. People make art for different reasons — to sell, or to challenge the status quo. No one appreciates it more than Mike when someone breaks out of the conformist mold "steps out and tries to create something." But there is another reason he takes pictures.

“I tell you what, when I’m riding on a bus, or a train, people are so enamored with their phones, they don’t even look out the window. They’re missing the whole damn world.” 

He evokes Garry Winogrand at Coney Island with two cameras firing at once — “He was doing it for the love of letting that camera go.” When Mike sets out to take pictures himself, he will take the train to some neighborhood he hasn’t been to for awhile, or walk through the crowd at a street festival. He is modest about the artistic merit of his street photography, but he loves to go out and let the world catch his eye. At home on the couch he’ll scroll through the pictures and delete the ones he doesn’t like.

Guitarist, Little Village, from Mike's Kind of Town

Mike has taken the Art on Cardboard show, and other Birdhouse Museum productions, a step further on the inclusiveness front. The first Bridgeport Art on Cardboard shows were inclusive in the sense that they showed first time artists alongside more seasoned professionals, but the artists participated by invitation, and they did it within certain parameters. Mike has shed the parameters and made the shows open to all. John Salhus describes the effect as being all over the place, “like a Frank Zappa record.”

“Ninety percent of it is great,” Mike says “then there are people who bring art that’s still wet and you have to tell them to go... not everybody has the patience for that.” He has always had an appreciation for the imperfect, the of the moment, himself. 

“My whole mindset is the democracy of art, let the people in.  The institutional art system set up all this barbed wire, we didn’t know how to get in. So we just created our own art scene outside.

"They close the doors,” he says “I open them."

Bill Douglas at Art in the Yard, photo by Rose Regula

In early September, Mike and Bill decided to hold an art show they called “Art in the Yard.”

“We had an inkling to socialize and communicate with other artists,” Mike says. “We said why the hell not? Why not bring them right to our yard?”

So they invited some friends, put up some flyers. Their neighbor, the Attorney Kathy Walsh, got hold of a hotdog machine. “God was shining over us, it was a beautiful day,” Mike says enthusiastically “We had art, hotdogs and sun.”

There were artists from Project Onward, and from Morgan Street, longtime veterans of the Art on Cardboard Shows, including one whose previous show was at the Chicago Cultural Center, and another who won a juried show at the Zhou B. Center last year. “People would walk in we didn’t even know.”

Mike says it wasn’t that long ago that the art scene was the last thing his neighbors wanted to see take hold in their midst. “It can be neat to make art where you can really get people’s goat,” he observed on another occasion. He was explaining why he never considered moving to the north side.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Good Influence: Wayward Machine Co.

Bobby and Kacy Middleton and the 18,000 lb Press Brake

Less than 3 years ago, Bobby and Kacy Middleton were living in a house in the suburbs with a yard the size of a football field.

Bobby had made a name for himself building vintage motorcycles under the name King Kustom. Over 15 years he’d won awards and been invited to build for the Born-Free vintage motorbike show for 3 years in a row. He had a social media presence and a following — kids who followed his work on instagram and aspired to make a living building award winning bikes.

But life in the suburbs left something wanting.  They didn’t particularly like yard work. “We were really bored,” Kacy says.

When their friend Daniel moved into a cool storefront on Morgan Street, they told him “If you see something else like this, let us know.”  A few days later, Daniel called to say that his landlord had bought the building on the corner of Morgan and 32nd Place. They drove in to see it that night. It was a shell of a building with cratered floors, a retail storefront and a garage large enough to build motorcycles.

Leaving a house they owned to rent an apartment, moving a whole shop of machine tools, seemed like a risk.  “We were asking ourselves ‘ Are we really going to do this?’”

Five weeks later the landlord had built out an entire apartment, the Middleton’s had rented their house, they shipped 10,000 pounds of machine tools to Bridgeport and opened the doors as Wayward Machine.

They’d brainstormed the name with friends.  They wanted something with attitude, and broader than motorcycles, something open to the possibilities of the space.  Maybe they’d open a lifestyle clothing store.

Meanwhile, Meg McMorrow, a good friend, had asked Bobby to build a couple restaurant light fixtures for Siren Betty, the design firm she was working at.  The fabrication jobs just snowballed from there.

Wayward Machine has spent the past 2 and a half years growing furiously by every measure - employees, shop space, tonnage of machines.  And not least in social footprint which has taken on dimension with a videographer on staff, and their street presence in a real neighborhood.  Every contact they refer to in the Chicago restaurant industry industry is also ‘a good friend,’ or ‘a great guy.’

“He’s figuring it out,” Kacy says of a good friend who runs a complementary business, like Wayward is doing.

Milling Machine - the Tool That Could Reproduce Itself

Wayward Machine opened with the tools Bobby used to build motorcycles: a lathe, a bandsaw, a welder and an antique Bridgeport mill (from Connecticut) that’s so versatile Bobby says it could reproduce itself.

They worked out of the garage at the back of their apartment.  As positions opened up, they drew on Bobby’s social media media followers - other bike builders who knew how to weld - or on neighbors, the barista at the coffee shop who knew auto CAD, the young woman who lived upstairs.

Then Meg, their friend at Siren Betty, took a job at Heisler, a restaurant development machine responsible for the Queen Mary Tavern, Estereo and Bad Hunter.  Heisler advertises its work on forward trending projects, a design aesthetic of “rawness of refinement,” and a desire to “mentor and champion the people they work with.”

In its first year of existence, Wayward Machine Co. was busy building furnishings for Bad Hunter for the better part of a year.  They built chairs in the hundreds, they built giant back bars, kitchen partitions, dropped ceilings from steel frames inset with wood, or with frosted glass to look like skylights.  They built a lot of steel and glass doors.

Steel and glass, for doors, windows and walls, has turned out to be a big moment in the interior decorating world.  Wayward builds them for a growing list of private residences too.

To keep pace, Wayward Machine has added staff; they moved the shop to 1100 West Cermak Road in Pilsen, a space large enough for work stations, fabrications tables and an office, and they’ve filled it with machine tools from old industry machine shops going out of business.

They’ve bought a punch press, benders to shape tubing, and an 18,000 pound brake press.  It puts down 100 tons of pressure to bend uniform angles into thick steel plate. They bought a sheer that slices 10 gauge plate like it’s cold wax with the push of a button.  Cutting it by hand would take someone 15-20 minutes with an abrasive grinder.  It would also be a screechingly loud, filthy job, and even without error or injury, the cut wouldn’t be clean.

"Like a giant mechanical paper cutter"

The tools themselves are all analogue technology from the 60s and 70s, “We can’t afford half million dollar machines,” Bobby says.  “We had to mess with them to make them work, because they’re old.” But they work well for the scale of Wayward’s jobs, and analogue has other advantages for a skilled mechanic.  “I never hooked up a press brake before, but I can make stuff work,” Bobby says,  “I’m not afraid to jump in there and figure it out.”

They still draw on some tried and true contacts in the suburbs - a certain chrome shop, and a certain powder coater. “His paint is perfect, no bullshit,” Bobby says.  “But we have to pack up the truck and send it to Addison.”

That’s one big advantage of their urban location.  Their steel supplier is just down the street.  Since founding Wayward there have been more connections close by, a 3-D printer, a foundry, a stamping company on the far south side.

Especially around the restaurant industry, they tend to describe their associates as people they’ve become close with, like the mill worker who makes wood tops for Wayward’s metal table bases. The electrician they use is doing all the hip restaurants. He doesn’t advertise, Bobby says. “Everybody just knows him.”  Wayward Machine built metal for his house; when Wayward moved the shop to a much larger space in Pilsen this Spring, he wired the new shop.

Their upholsterer, is a young businessman in West Town.  “He’s one of our best friends, we love him to death.” He’s upholstered every barstool Wayward Machine has built - over 300 of them so far. His father ran a cottage scale upholstery business, Aaron saw opportunity to grow.  Father and son still work together at the new business, Urban Craft Custom Upholstery.  Urban Craft is 7 years old, with 20 employees.

“We thought that was shocking,” Kasey recalls.  Now they’re half way there themselves.  They’ve got a project schedule 50 jobs long, they can point out 6 different jobs in progress from where we stand on the shop floor.

As the jobs multiply, the problem solving gets more complex.  There are endless calculations of dimensions, quantities and costs, of schedule and logistics, of keeping 5 or 6 jobs moving timely from one phase to the next. Not to mention the problems involved moving really big, cumbersome objects through space.

A Shop Full of Windows and Walls

Bobby points out a large steel structure that’s been built to fit an industrial size window for a loft conversion in Wicker Park.  “We could make this in 3 pieces,” Bobby says, “but we’d put it in and it wouldn’t look as good as it does now.

“So me being a psychopath, I say ‘Let’s make it one piece and we’ll just figure out how to get it there.’  So we’re going to figure out how to get it to Wicker Park.  We’ll put it on a trailer somehow, move it late at night.  We’ll figure it out.”

There will be more problem solving when they do.  The building is an old warehouse, so none of the floors are straight, none of the windows are square, it’s built of old brick that will start to come apart as they’re working it. It’s going to take a lot of patience to fit it in just right.

Bobby says problem solving is the part of the job he likes most.  He says Stephen Adzemovic excels in that area too, if you’re wondering what he’s up to since leaving Bridgeport Coffee.  They hired him because he could draw in autoCAD, but a lot of people can use software. “We work really well together,” Bobby says. “We bounce ideas off each other all day long.”

Kacy problem solves on the marketing side. “I make sure that we’re visible to the people that I know need us,” she says. “I can steer what our jobs are.  I know if we post a picture of a brass hood, and we post it in enough places or in the right way, tomorrow we’re going to get an e-mail from somebody who wants a brass hood.”

Last year, she started shooting video of the crew working on the shop and posting that on social media.  Now they have Nicolette Nunez, a full time videographer who follows them around with a video camera.  She found Wayward Machine on instagram, she’d offered to work for free. They said ‘Let’s try it for 2 weeks and see what happens.’  “She made herself invaluable,” Kacy says, “so we hired her full time.”

Street Presence

There’s something about the thought of a lot of people who may never have worked in a factory, who may never have reason to weld 2 pieces of steel together, wanting to watch video of other people doing it, that seems almost wholesome. 

We often use the word ‘lifestyle’ with a wink, to refer to appearances not connected to real substance.  But if we don’t resent being social creatures, we can’t reduce the way we watch each other, the various social cues we read, and send, as if they only work as status markers.

The Middletons have been communicating an attractive lifestyle since before they opened Wayward Machine.  King Kustom's social media accounts built on a shared an appreciation of a common object.  Wayward Machine’s communicate a style of life tied in to a style of work, one where something additional to cash is in circulation. It spills out from the social media accounts into their work networks, and from their house in Bridgeport, it spills out into the street.

The building on Morgan and 32nd Place had a sweeping mural across the street-side wall before they moved in.  Bobby and Kacy didn’t like all of it, so they engaged friends to repaint parts with motorcycles, wrenches.  They installed goose necked lighting so the sidewalk is bright at night.  They engaged Pat Finley, an elder sign painter, to paint the Wayward Machine Co. sign at the center of the wall. 

“He just paints, he doesn’t do any vinyl stickers,” Bobby says appreciatively. “He draws a big stencil on paper, uses a pounce pad that leaves an outline, just as a reference, then goes and paints on there.”

And they sit on the stoop with friends, and talk to anyone who pauses to chat as they walk by.  They’re out there a little less this year.  It’s been cold, they may be working all the time.  But that’s why they can tell you about a half dozen creative businesses going on behind curtains and storefronts on Morgan Street.  Appointment only vintage clothing shops - one for ladies a block or so north, and one for gentlemen just south, a print shop, urban gardening, documentary film.  Other folks who are figuring it out.

Since they moved the shop to Pilsen this spring, the house on Morgan Street is bigger than they strictly need to live in.  They use the storefront as an extra living room; they’ve installed kilns in the garage.  Kacy uses them to make art and household objects that look like geologic curiosities.  They run on the electrical that Wayward Machine used for welding.

“We definitely struggle with whether it makes sense to stay in the space financially, because it’s so large,” Kasey says.  “But we love it there.  As long as we can afford to pull it off I think we want to stay.”