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.