Op Shop, Take Two

(MehveÅŸ Konuk)

As autumn leaves quiver in the breeze, a tune floats through the room. One easily forgets that this space is the basement of what used to be a Hollywood Video store. “Mom’s Window and Tree,” an art installation by Patrick Q, spurs a conversation between the artist and viewer. That, according to volunteer Janice Bees, is what the Opportunity Shop, or Op Shop, is about: “illuminating interpersonal connections that you didn’t know you have.”

The Op Shop, a temporary creative arts space, is Laura Shaeffer’s “attempt to create a sphere of community exchange and responsibility.” For Shaeffer, curating the space is a dialogical process. She likens it to preparing a soup: “Everyone brings their own ingredients, and together we make a soup that feeds all.” The ingredients don’t necessarily seem compatible at first–a heap of compost sits in the center of the store (surely this only adds to the flavor), and a church-organized thrift store in the right corner. Somehow, however, they interact to form an organic whole.

The space that was previously separated into romance, horror, sci-fi, and drama aisles is now divided into departments entitled Oral History, G.E.E.E. (for General Exquisite Economic Exchange), Mural, Indoor Yard Sale, Art Potluck, Fort Cardboard, and Reenactment. These sections are fluid, one genre merging into the next. At the Indoor Yard Sale, a woman tries on a purple skirt from the ‘80s while her daughter reaches for some Curious George books. The mother wanders over to talk to volunteers from the United Church of Hyde Park, and signs up for the Op Shop’s sewing workshop afterwards. The diversity of the store’s offerings attracts a similarly varied clientele.

Having spent thirteen years in Berlin, where art is an integral part of life, Shaeffer recognizes the shortage of accessible, communal creative spaces in Chicago. The Op Shop is an attempt to attend to that need, giving more residents the opportunity to enjoy collaborative art. The high school students painting a mural in one corner of the showroom have no artistic credentials, nor some of the contributors to the Art Potluck, yet all are given the freedom to explore their talents and exhibit their work. “When selecting artists, I don’t ask for any qualifications,” Shaeffer says. “I only require them to have spirit.” Even the space itself is given a chance to shine: a video installation in the far left corner charts the many incarnations of the storefront, from its time as a Walgreens to its current form as an eclectic art den.

Like the mutable history of the shop as a whole, nothing in its collection is static. According to Shaeffer, “the vision of the show is changed and recreated by what transpires during it.” Marie Krane Bergman, a member of G.E.E.E., describes it as a “theory/practice collective including artists and others,” embodying the same spirit of inclusion as the Op Shop. She explains that it is a “neighborly exchange experiment regarding whether the way we relate as neighbors can operate as a barter system, not an economy.” In an effort to put such ideals into practice, the shop is offering plants and seeds in exchange for anything with “value.” Patrick Thornton, another member of G.E.E.E., says that the Op Shop is the perfect place for their first public foray because “it’s a place for experimentation” that serves as an outlet for the creative community in Hyde Park.

This art forum is not meant to last forever, though. At the end of April, this manifestation of the Op Shop will come to an end. Shaeffer is already busy conceptualizing the next two. Her main aim with these projects is to make people realize that “art is messy and need not always be coherent.” Here’s to looking forward to Hyde Park’s next dose of incoherence.

The Opportunity Shop is temporarily located at 1530 E 53rd St.

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