ITAK recently sat down with the Comfort Station curatorial board over brunch to find out more about their unique space and to kick off our 2014 interview collaboration, Comfort Kitchen! We will be cooking with artists featured at Comfort Station throughout the rest of 2014. Check back for more great Comfort Kitchen interviews. Click here for more information
Kristina: I actually don’t know how long Comfort Station has been Comfort Station. You kept referencing, “I’ve been there since the beginning,” tell us, “When was that?”
Jessie: The space has been around since 1915, and it was originally a stop on the old Milwaukee tram, and there were literally hundreds of these little cookie-cutter buildings that ran along Milwaukee. They were all torn down, and this space was left standing, then it was used as city storage for forty years. The windows were boarded up, and it was stuffed with hedge cutters and lawn mowers and whatnot, and at that time, from what I hear from people who have lived in the neighborhood for fifty years that I’ve gotten to know through being in that space, they all thought it was haunted.
Logan Square Preservation is an organization in the neighborhood who takes care of the houses and the maintenance of some old buildings, and literally will picket the destruction of these old buildings. Really, ground-level active, trying to keep the neighborhood lovely, and they’ve done a really wonderful job. So they worked it out with the city in 2010 to start renovation and restoration of Comfort Station.
K: Wow, so that was pretty recently.
J: Yeah, so they took it over and brought back a lot of the old detailing in the interior and redid the exterior. They put a lot of time and energy and money into the restoration of the building. And then there was the big neighborhood conversation about what happens then. It was discussed whether it should become a retail space or a coffee shop, and so there was some kind of neighborhood tussle about what was going to happen with this space.
K: That would have been a sad use of it.
J: Exactly. And Logan Square Preservation felt really strongly that they wanted it to be a community art space, and so they brought David Keel on, who’s [now] the director. David is an artist, and he’s been active in the art world in Chicago for a long time. He took it on with his two buddies. One of them was my downstairs neighbor when I moved back from Los Angeles. This is all kismet. I was downstairs at this house party, and I was talking to David Keel, and he was like, “Yeah, we have this gallery space, and we don’t really know what to do with it,” and he said, “We really need some help. Do you want to come curate a show?” And I was like, “Absolutely.” Because that’s what I did in LA, and I was really excited about the idea of getting to do it here.
And so I came in for one show, and I just never left. We opened up for our first show in April 2011, and the first show was Jordan Martins who is a musician and also did the free jazz series for The Whistler. During his show, he said, “Can I curate these music series every Thursday during the show to bring more interest in?” And we were like, “Absolutely.” And it was such a hit that we just continued ever since then. So the first show was his work, and he started doing this every Thursday, and it just never stopped.
Robyn: And it should be said that Jordan Martins has amazing collage work.
J: He does. He’s a brilliant artist. It kicked off with this really beautiful show, and it’s just been a combination of serious hard work on everyone’s part. Back to the legend about the space being haunted. At this point, I think it is. I think that it’s good spirits. It has this amazing presence to it, that space, and it lends an air. All the programming that goes on in it, it’s very unique. So in any case, we’ve been really fortunate that the quality of the artwork and music and film that have since come to be in that space have all been very good.
We’ve developed a reputation for that. And then we realized that we needed to build out the fine arts programming. We talked to these two very capable lovely ladies to join the curatorial panel in 2012. Robyn brings in a huge amount of knowledge and connections in the design world, so we’ve broadened our base from fine arts into the design world, and then MK is incredibly really well connected in the Chicago art world and is a very brilliant writer. Everyone really brings their skill set to it, and it allows for a greater depth of programming. We want to be diverse, we want to be accessible, present as much variety as we can, especially in the neighborhood, but in the community at large.
K: How do you decide who curates each show?
R: We usually do a call for submissions and also bring our own ideas in. We look across the board at what kind of artist we want for the space, what their work should be like, who they are as people, geography, and across the board, we just try to get a really nice diverse group.
J: And even though we have our own specific shows, we actually do things kind of collaboratively. We’ll bounce the press release off of each other, or if someone needs help doing an install, we’ll pop into the space. We’ll support on opening reception day. We’ll always collaborate in some way, but there’s always a lead point person for each artist.
K: Besides the fact that you said that you are looking for a diverse range of people, are there certain qualifiers?
MK: We’ve definitely learned the hard way that new new media, projection has lots of logistical things to consider.
R: It’s really hard because it’s a historic space, you don’t want to destroy the walls. There are limits to what you can do. The other thing is we have so much programming that we like to have some kind of visual tie-back to the artist in the space during all the shows. So if there’s a musician performing on Thursday night, we can’t necessarily turn on the projections too because it might interact with what the musician is trying to do in not a great way. So we try to get that balance between what the artist wants to do with the space and how the other programming can react to that.
J: This is an idiosyncratic space, so a lot of time, we receive these proposals from people that are like, “I do 12 x 12 paintings, and I have five of them. How can I show that?” And I’m like, “It’s not really the space for you.” So a lot of the time, there has to be adaptability on the part of the artist, and there has to be adaptability on the part of the curator. And actually, MK has done a lot of really interesting things to bring large-scale works into that space.
MK: I built a wall. I had this vision: As you walk in, confronted with a wall-sized work. This artist who has these wall-to-wall charcoal drawings of the same word written over and over and over again, and it was kind of playing off the discomfort as well. This idea of it being a shelter for travelers and messing with that with the confrontational work. There’s a window there, and we had to have a wall over it to present the drawing.
K: So we were just there. I really liked the presentation of the photographs on the pedestals by the window. I thought was a really unique way to use that space. To me, they echoed “window.” I don’t know if that was your goal or if you had anything to do with them specifically?
MK: No, I wish I could take credit. They kind of self-curated, those two artists, as part of High Concept Labs. Well, the artist who you admire, Liz, has curated a bunch in addition to her photography. She, I think, nailed it. She just laid that whole thing out.
And she’d been working with the other artists for years, and she knew the work. That work had a really subtle read that I didn’t pick up, but talking to her, there’s all this stuff about time and ephemera. I think it’s really really awesome. She did custom-build those pieces for that window, I found out.
J: A lot of artists have done that–seen the space and are like, “Actually, you know what we need right here…” and then they’ll end up responding to the space. It ends up being this collaborative.
K: That’s actually really good.
R: And I think that ties back into the spirit of the space that you were talking about earlier. It definitely talks to you when you walk into it. You get a sense of the history, and you get a sense of what has been there before.
J: And really the exciting thing about how the space panned out is that we’ve brought on these curators to take on these other programs who are just as immersed into what they’re doing. It’s not like we’re on the side like, “Oh, let’s show a film. What can we show?” It’s this whole other group of people that are geeking out on what they can fill that space with.
K: I totally agree with you. We happened to pop in to meet you during a film series, and there were two guys setting up, and I don’t know if they were the people who run the film series or some extra helper people, but they alone were generating enough buzz about whatever movie was playing. And then there were people popping in like, “Is it time for the movie yet?” There were like six or eight people by the time we met with you, and it was cold. I think it was October, and it was cold, and people were still really amped up to see whatever was happening. So I think that it’s true that it’s a place where people with a lot of different interests, no matter what you’re into, there’s something for you to see there or do there.
J: Yeah, also we have the food program that started last year, which has been really an interesting addition to the space. Because food, you know, is very accessible. And then we have a lecture series that started last year that’s supposed to be “Casual Conversation” is the trademark of it. It’s not supposed to be this stand-offish academia. It’s supposed to be this conversation-based lecture series called Comfort Society. And also, we have things like the Chicago 16mm Film Archives that show once a month that are incredible. That’s pretty much part of the space too, is giving a venue to these series that are looking for a home.
R: For March, they’re working with the Post Family to bring this set of films that was created by Logan Square artists in the 70s and 80s that are a showcase of the Logan Square-centric home movies found in her collection. And then they’re doing a series of home movies after that. So they’re asking people to bring in their home movies, and it’s kind of like an open-mic home movie night.
J: That’s fantastic. I love that a lot. I didn’t know that until right this moment, and I love it.
R: Yeah, and I think it’s a lot about building… this is a perfect example of how we try to build a community in the space. The sacred harp is an example of that, too.
J: Do you know sacred harp singing? It’s like shape-note singing.
Michael: Oh, ok. Yeah.
J: So, we have a series that’s twice a month, every other Saturday. In the summer, it’ll kick off again. It’s like, “If you come, you have to sing.” You can’t just listen. It’s all shape note, so you’re responding to the shapes. There’s a brief tutorial, “This is how this works.” Also the idea is that you sing at the top of your voice. So it’s this grand cacophony. And the acoustics in that space are so fertile, so it’s this amazing, booming… it’s wonderful.
MK: It sounds really beautiful sometimes. Have you seen the movie Cold Mountain? There’s a scene in there in the church, and they’re singing going like this, and they’re singing Sacred Harp. That’s the only example I’ve seen in a movie. It’s so good.
M: I don’t know the history of shape-note singing. I just know that the tradition’s still there in the modern Episcopal hymnal and some of the other hymnals.
J: Yeah, it’s interesting. That has been a real draw from all over the city. “Shape note series?” They’ll come out.
K: It’s a little weird unique niche thing.
J: And that’s one thing, we’re always open to the proposals. They’re all considered. We actually have a guided meditation series starting again this year that we’re doing that I think will also be bi-monthly.
MK: Yeah, we had a Vernau show. He had balloons in the small space. That was like a freak-out zone.
K: I will confess that balloons in general, I think make everyone happy. I don’t know if this is the same artist or if it’s just similar work happening at the same time, but there was also a piece at a gallery in the water tower, which was just a room filled with balloons, and it was getting a lot of talk.
J: Were there forms, or were there just balloons?
K: I’m pretty sure they were just balloons. But I think the balloon thing is going on a little bit lately, and we happened to see in Garfield Park in some basement gallery. It’s called GAG, Garden Apartment Gallery, and the lady who runs it is awesome. And we always see very unexpected things there. I’m always really surprised. A little while ago now we went there, I can’t remember when, but there was a room full of balloons and fans, and we ended up playing. We all stared at each other for a minute, like, “Is it appropriate for grown-ups to play in the balloon room?” And then we’re all, “we’re doing it!” And then we’re all playing in the balloons.
J: That totally reminds me of when we first installed the Belknap show. I don’t know if you’ve seen images of it, but there were like twelve hundred meteors that they cast out of foam on these pieces of standing wire on the yard. So they were in these rows, and David had just finished helping them install these thousands of meteorites, and I come from brunch, and I’m like, “This is amazing!” I literally took off running and went like this through the field, they were all bouncing around, I was running back and forth.” He’s like, “I don’t know if…” I’m like, “OK, I get it.” But then in the end, it was great because all of the kids would come by and interact and play, and people were really participatory.
R: I actually did a small little thing for the You Are Beautiful tenth anniversary that had balloons in it, too. You’re absolutely right. And when I was doing that installation, this guy came through, and he was like, “Oh my god, I do balloons, too.”
K: There’s lots of balloons happening. People are responding to them, which is probably what’s keeping it around. People just really like balloons.
R: There’s this whimsy that’s associated with… all it takes is one twenty-five cent balloon filled with helium, and people are happy.
J: I actually want to show you guys this. It’s a little bit of a tangent, but I keep this thing around because it makes me think that… Look at this, “Emerald green, five inch balloons, 15¢ each.” I just love the visual of that.
K: You got it at a thrift shop?
J: Yeah, and so I always keep that on there. I just love the visual of 15¢ emerald green balloons.
K: That’s nice. I think you’re right, whimsy is the right word.
K: I usually ask people, “What kind of artist are you?” during all of my interviews, but I feel like maybe, “Are you artists?” might be more apt right now?
R: Perhaps, “What kind of curator are you?”
K: Sure. What about you?
MK: I’ve become almost militant about my use of that word. I think it’s something that people call you, you don’t get to call yourself that.
MK: I couldn’t call myself that. I hope that one day somebody might see what I do as valuable in that way, aesthetically, to call me an artist. But I guess the safe way to say it is I’m a writer. I think that’s intrinsic to any curating. Writing is a huge part of it. I hope one day, I could be an artist. It’s not that writing is not art, but I don’t do it in a way that’s departing a whole.
M: What kind of writing do you do?
MK: On my own, I do a lot of fiction writing, but I don’t show that. But a lot of just collecting of things, and I’m going to go to grad school at some point, so I’m starting my thesis, and that’s all about installation artists, particularly 20th century female installation artists. I’m just combining things for that. Mostly non-fictive, lots of press releases. Lots of press releases.
M: So you’re a researcher as well?
MK: I guess, yeah.
R: I don’t consider myself an artist. I’m trained as a designer. I guess I do art pieces occasionally, but I call myself a connector, and I think that the term “connector” works in many different ways. I’m a connector of people, I’m a connector of ideas, I’m a connector of visual assets.
MK: I like that a lot.
R: Thank you.
M: We had one artist that we interviewed who made this off-hand remark to Kristina about the difference between an artist and a designer is that “Artists are willing to get their hands dirty.”
R: Yeah, and I think there’s this other difference in that designers work with clients. It’s kind of a collaborative thing, whereas artists are either commissioned, or they create a piece and someone purchases it. Designers work with clients, and they also do more strict typography, the kind of typographic theory that you want to follow if you’re a designer. You’re right, though, artists get their hands dirty a little bit more than designers do.
K: I think there’s also the level of when you’re a designer, you’re responding to something that’s for more than yourself. I think when you’re an artist, you work from a place within yourself to express something. But those are maybe arbitrary meanings I’ve attached to the words, but I feel like it’s a different place that you create from, so I don’t know if you can say that one’s dirtier.
R: As part of being a connector, part of what you do is give people a platform, so all of the things that I do, wherever I’m at, my goal is to create a space for people to express themselves, and whether it’s people who already have work that exists out there or work that I have to invite them to think about and create for us, I really enjoy giving a platform, and there’s nothing better than the opening night when you can see how people are reacting to the work that you think is so great. You can see people get goosebumps by the same things that give you goosebumps. They think, “Oh my god, they get it! It’s so good!”
J: That gets a high five in my book.
K: I don’t think we’ve had the chance to have that kind of reaction. I hope that our project eventually gets big enough that it does things like that. Bridges gaps and connects things.
J: It’s amazing how things can be subjective that you keep in mind and they come to fruition when you’re not looking. You’re like, this is what I want, and suddenly you’re so busy, a couple of seconds later you’re like, “Wow, that’s happened.” It always incarnates itself in a different way.
R: Are you an artist?
J: Well, Robyn, I went to art school. I went to the Art Institute and studied painting and printmaking. Since then, I make things for myself and as gifts, but my real public art has been curation ever since then. I absolutely do think I would consider myself an artist. I think without that title, I would be very lost in the world. I think it’s very much how I think and how it allows me to interact with other people—in traits that I look for in other people socially. You know I’m a collector. You can look around my house, and you can find something, and I’m like, “Let me tell you about that thing.” So I respond to objects, and that’s what finally drove me to curation, was finding some nuances in objects and finding correlated nuances in other objects, if it’s found objects or in different artists. And while I was in Los Angeles, I was working in the gallery system more professionally, and I started noticing these commonalities and then independently started bringing them together in shows, and that was my favorite thing, is not only having people come from the outside and be like, “What a curious thing,” but also juxtaposing work together in a way that artists would come in and be like, “I didn’t even consider my artwork in this way until I saw it in this context,” and that’s another one of my favorite things, finding these similarities that are put into these works and then bringing them together to create this other narrative. I also very much like the atmosphere, how much these works enrich an atmosphere and create this dialogue or this experience for the viewer that should push you out of what you’re normally thinking, what you’re normally experiencing and put you in this awkward moment where you have to reanalyze. In any case, the answer is, “Yeah.” And my mom, too… I’m kind of just like her in this really funny way. If you go over to her house, she has all these… she’ll have an avocado pit growing roots in a little jar on the windowsill, and then she’ll have a little Buddha with a little leaf just sitting next to it. Nothing really makes sense, but it’s just things she found curious and put places. And so the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. She’s very much an artist in her own way as well.
R: I like that, “The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.” I don’t even use the word curator that often. I say that I aspire to curate. It’s a constantly evolving learning process, and I feel the same way that MK feels about the word artist. I feel like people call you a curator when you’ve proven that you can do the job. So that’s why I call myself a connector.
MK: I never feel like I’m achieving something that hits as “art” because it could always be better.
K: Every single thing that we’ve done, we always step back and think, “Oh god, if that was only 2° higher, my life would be so much better.”
M: But also, I’m not trained as a photographer, I went to school for music, and I feel the same way about the word “photographer.” I don’t call myself a photographer because it’s something that I’m figuring out along the way.
J: I think there’s something to those labels that’s inherent to you. Training is a wonderful thing, but I think you can call yourself a photographer when you clearly have that talent and you do it actively.
MK: But there’s still some part of it that’s so private… that’s still for me. And that’s the part where I don’t want to show too much, or I don’t want to flaunt, because it’s still a personal practice for me. So… exploration.
R: I was talking to a curator the other day who divided it in two sides of the same glass. One of the sides is the very personal, informed in what’s happening right now… being able to see these connections, but then the second half is what you were speaking to earlier, it’s like this history. Some curators have both halves, and some curators only have one or the other. It’s just tuning the dial to exactly where you need to be to get a platform for the people and build this narrative.