Our Little ACRE

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” insisted Henry David Thoreau in his book “Walden,” the culmination of two years spent in a cabin at the edge of Concord, Massachusetts. Like his fellow transcendentalist writers, Thoreau drew inspiration from the simplicity of nature, a sense of serenity that spills over into other art forms.

The spirit of “Walden” has been reincarnated in Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions (ACRE). Founded by Emily Green and Nick Wylie last year, ACRE allows artists who work on 100 acres of wetlands, hills and farmland in southwest Wisconsin to develop, discuss, and present their practices in the urban environment of Pilsen.

Artists from all across the United States are invited to apply to the three-week residency program that promotes exchange of ideas, interdisciplinary collaboration and artistic exploration. At any given time, 25 to 30 ACRE members live and work together in spaces built with salvaged wood and share communal dinners prepared daily from local, organic ingredients.

A typical day at ACRE is “drastically different from what you would see on the farm,” says co-founder Wylie. Freed from having to cook, clean, milk cows or deal with routine chores, artists are free to paint, draw, find, think, assemble, perform, synthesize or record. During the day, residents can do anything they want to advance their art. Some opt for introspection while others, like 2010 resident Erik Peterson, engage with their agrarian environment and incorporate it into their work. In “{South Western Wisconsin Make Your Own Soft Ball League} Hall of Fame,” Peterson organized a baseball game among the artists in which both teams created bats and balls from found farm materials.

In a recent interview with the Chicago web publication Sixty Inches from the Center, Peterson said, “What I was trying to do was not only get artists to play sports, but also to have them build a sport in some way and invite the community. So, we invited the local newspaper, which covered the region and also the local community. I was really interested in activating that audience. I knew the artists themselves, the performers if you will, were also an audience in some ways.”

Not only does the unique setting of the residency allow artists to find inspiration from their surroundings, but, as co-founder Green explains, “Being in a remote location allows for a concrete sense of being away from everyday life and responsibilities. This is something that most people rarely feel they have access to and it is important that artists have an opportunity to focus on their art practice without any distractions, whether it means producing a body of work or meditating on ideas surrounding their work through reading, writing and thinking.”

Alex Chitty, marine biologist-turned-conceptual artist and ACRE alum, agrees that introspection is an essential part of the experience. She compares her creative process to the overview effect, a transcendental feeling of euphoria that astronauts report experiencing when they see the Earth from space.

“My ACRE experience was like being in orbit,” Chitty says. “I pulled away from my life, my studio and my work and I finally had the time and the space to read, research, write and evaluate what I was and wasn’t doing in both my life and my art.”

This all-encompassing, cosmic perspective on one’s deeply personal creations can also be achieved by sharing ideas with the artistic community. Residents are invited to evening programming that includes scheduled criticisms with visiting artists and informal activities such as local band performances. The interaction among artists is crucial.

ACRE provides resources for artists in two ways: personal inspiration and impersonal structure. The former  gives artistic fodder while the latter provides  on which emerging artists can find support and affirmation. Co-residents often become enduring friends and promoters.

This year, ACRE will provide solo showings of resident artwork at the 1000-square-foot gallery space carved out of Green and Wylie’s Pilsen home. The cozy digs don’t limit the innovative and reflective art at hand, though. Thoreau sought to transcend the constraints of physical reality through intuition, communion with nature, and the creative process. Artists at ACRE are offered a chance to do the same.

ACRE. 1913 W. 17th St. Opening receptions, Sunday, 4-8pm; open hours, Monday, noon-4pm. acreresidency.org

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