When I told the artist I worked for that I was leaving my hometown of Brooklyn for her hometown of Chicago, she gave me a long, skeptical look before replying, "Well, let me know when you're ready to come back."
I was a 21-year-old artist with no time, space, or money to maintain a studio practice. To keep up with rent in my Bed-Stuy sublet, I worked part-time as a barista, a docent, and a studio assistant, and I scanned family photos for a wealthy Upper West Side couple. Without the buttress of familial wealth, I found that the New York my parents grew up in, the home of limitless possibility I was ready to return to after college, no longer existed. In a fit of dramatic desperation, I packed up two suitcases, said goodbye to my family, and jumped on an Amtrak to a city I'd only ever spent a couple of days in: Chicago, Illinois.
By the end of my first snowy week, I found myself sitting on the wooden floor of a Humboldt Park live/work space, surrounded by dozens of strangers. The event was Bits & Pieces , an open mic for in-progress works hosted by performance art duo Mothergirl. I can no longer remember the art performed that night, but I can remember how gracious and inviting the space, the hosts, and the guests all were. I was welcomed. I was asked where I was from. I was offered popcorn smothered in butter and nutritional yeast. And I was invited back the next time. It was the first of countless nights I'd spend crammed into the living rooms, basements, and storefronts that are the architecture of the Chicago underground art scene, and the first of many nights that I'd be astonished by the generous spirit of the people who comprise it.
Chicago is vast and incredibly segregated. I can't claim a comprehensive understanding of the disparate artistic communities that exist within each of the city's neighborhoods, but here are some quick observations from my limited, personal experience:
- Artists and musicians here are nice. Really, alarmingly nice. It's the prevailing culture.
- Good living is cheap. Which means that…
- Studio spaces and storefronts are also cheap.
- There is an expansive network of DIY and artist-run spaces in attics, storefronts, garages, and basements throughout the city.
- Everyone is working on something. And they want to know what you're working on.
- If you ask people to show up, they will. Whether it's for an apartment art show, a night of playing board games, or a fundraiser for your new art space.
- If people ask you to show up, you'd better. But they won't hold it against you if you don't.
- Wealth is not as concentrated in Chicago as it is in New York, and the wealth that is here is not often oriented toward supporting the arts. This means that…
- Many artists use the low-pressure zone of Chicago to build momentum in their practices, then head for the coasts, where people pay for art.
In the four years since I stepped off that Amtrak, I've shown my work in living rooms and in galleries. I've rented—on a part-time salary—a small storefront, then a larger one, to house Hume, an artist-run space that rents out studios and exhibits the work of underrepresented emerging artists. I've organized conversation series and sit on the board of 2nd Floor Rear, a yearly celebration of Chicago's underground art scene. Even without a graduate degree, I've been paid by major museums and nonprofits for the work that I do as a teaching artist.
Here in Chicago, my community is made up of cartoonists and puppeteers, dungeon masters, festival organizers, urban farmers, creative re-users, printers, and presses. It's true that I moved out of New York before I found an artistic stride or a community. I have no idea what my trajectory would have been had I stayed home to tough it out. Do I miss Brooklyn? From my bones. But looking around at the fulfilling creative life I'm living, I think it'll be a while before I'll be letting my old boss know I'm ready to come back.