Broad Strokes, Broad Shoulders

Chicago is loud and Chicago is bold. There’s a popular belief that artists are the opposite. They are sly, pretentious, and stuck up, and they are often loath to reveal the underlying meaning of their work–that is, if they believe that meaning is an honorable pursuit in the first place. Such conventional wisdom may reflect one side of Chicago’s art scene, but for the most part, it’s untrue. This October, Chicago Artists Month could function as the antidote to the misconceptions many hold about Chicago’s art scene, and maybe about Chicago itself.

The free festivities kicked off last Friday on Halsted Street just north of Chinatown. It was reminiscent of a street festival, except that the greasy food and carousels had been traded for turtlenecks and canvases. The galleries on Halsted were swarming with visitors who had come to view exhibitions of neighborhood artists, including Karl Wirsum, winner of the 2010 Ruth Horwich Award to a Famous Chicago Artist, and Xavier Nunez, who has made his name in the Chicago art world by photography, painting, and design work focused on abandoned alleyways. All the artists were there, talking with viewers, and everyone was welcome.

You could peruse the street at your own pleasure, but most gallery goers began at Pilsen East, where a survey of Chicago artists was on display. All the art has an urban feel, but mediums range from oil paints to displays using real people. Photographs by Ursula Sokolowska depict children who recently immigrated to the city, who feel isolated and alone in a country unlike theirs. Her message, like her images, is powerful in its simplicity.

Jennifer Bridgeport, a Second City native whose last name happens to be an up-and-coming artistic neighborhood, spoke favorably of the city’s art life, emphasizing the outgoing nature of its artists and citizens. “In a city like New York, people look at the work and walk out, where as in Chicago people will come in and come right up to you and tell you, ‘Oh, I love your work.’ And I’d say that’s very exclusive to Chicago, or maybe the Midwest.” Bridgeport is an abstract painter. Her work uses bright colors and sweeping brushstrokes and has a young and free energy to it, a reflection of both her youth and the city she calls home. “As a Chicagoan, I have a tendency to be vocal. The way I express my vocality is through my work.”

The art walk continued and the street became more crowded, as everyone stopped to discuss their most recently visited gallery. Children looked at the artwork through the windows. There were also businessmen and families who came to engage in dialogue with painters and photographers, exemplifying the spirit of the festivities.

Chicago Artists Month brings contemporary art back down to a level accessible to everyone. The artwork, the galleries, and the artists on display during the month of October represent the best qualities of their city: unpretentious, tough, and relevant. Events will be held across the city throughout the month of October. Check out chicagoartistsmonth.org for more details.