Float On

Courtesy of Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford

Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford stands behind his worktable, wearing camouflage patterned pants and a work shirt. The Hyde Park Arts Alliance space, where Hulsebos-Spofford has set up camp, looks more like the backstage of a high school theater than the studio of an artist-in-residence. Two large structures resembling parade floats rest in the middle of the narrow workspace. A foam figure, covered in intricate carved designs and a thick coat of black paint stands in a solid, domineering pose. At around six-feet tall, this statue could be the mascot of “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world,” Hulsebos-Spofford’s current collaborative work.

As a teacher at the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts), Hulsebos-Spofford noticed that “there are a number of CPS kids who are undocumented. We all know–some of these kids can’t even apply to college or request financial aid.” Moved by their stories and the diversity of their backgrounds, and interested in the idea of “how people end up where they are, what they find, and what happens in their transit,” the artist mapped out a plan for an “immigrant landing.”  He says, “I just thought about how strange the situation was–where is Chicago with immigration? What could we do to make a statement or ask these questions?”

Hulsebos-Spofford’s answer was to build rafts. Working with his ChiArts students everyday after school and on weekends for the past few months, the team has designed and begun to build usable rafts out of discarded construction materials from projects on the University of Chicago campus. They have made two wooden rafts and one out of PVC pipe, sealed at the ends and tied together.

Along the side wall of the studio, rows of inner tubes are stacked up. Hulsebos-Spofford plans to attach them to the two wooden rafts so that they can float on Lake Michigan. According to Hulsebos-Spofford, “Lake Michigan has become this beer drinking, recreational body of water. There is no longer that aspect of transit or the movement of goods.” He hopes to dramatically reimagine the lakefront: “I had a vision to come off the water with a flotilla of rafts.”

This vision pays homage to George Streeter, whose story Hulsebos-Spofford elaborates upon excitedly: “So you know Oak Street Beach, where that weird, crazy boathouse is? Well, the myth goes that a guy named George Streeter beached his ship there. Historians debate it, but basically he carted sand and debris and made a sort of squatter’s community right on this patch of beach where bankers and wealthy Chicagoans lived.” Laughing, he continues, “Then the bankers of the Gold Coast tried to get him evicted. This story really feeds into my project, where the paths people take meet.”

But on April 21 Hulsebos-Spofford’s plan came to an unforeseen halt. The Chicago Park District denied his formal request to land his three rafts on Oak Street Beach, citing injury and safety liabilities. Hulsebos-Spofford says, “I would have paid all the insurance necessary for this…I guess they just didn’t want to support the project.”

Hulsebos-Spofford, like rejected immigrants before him, dealt with the setback as best as he could. He rerouted his trip to a beach in Gary, Indiana where he and his students have been given the go-ahead to land. “It’s funny, maybe it’s perfect that the authorities wouldn’t let us land where we wanted to,” he says, alluding to the stringent immigration regulations that his work comments upon.

Over the past few months, as the project came to fruition, Hulsebos-Spofford has built a sense of community and collaboration in his studio. Faiz Razi, a colleague of Hulsebos-Spofford’s has stepped up to provide a live soundtrack for the landing. Hulsebos-Spofford’s students have undoubtedly been both the impetus and the force behind the project. “The kids, they come from all over Chicago. ChiArts is about 50 percent African-American, 25 percent Latino and 25 percent ‘other.’ We’ve got all types of students working on this project.”

Several of the students have consistently come in to work, and it will be these students who ride and steer the rafts ashore, while Hulsebos-Spofford films from the sand.  “One of my students brought in their mom, dad, and siblings,” he says, beaming. “It was great to see them all here.” He explains how a more reserved student “just started building one of the rafts almost entirely by himself and truly making it a personal project.” Parents have been so supportive that Hulsebos-Spofford wants them to sit on the rafts with the students. Some have gone above and beyond in their commitment to the project: “One of the moms brought home our garbage bags and created costumes for the kids to wear.”

As much as the students have inspired and contributed to the project, Hulsebos-Spofford takes pride in the personal touches he added that appear throughout the rafts and the statue. “I’m really into sci-fi, so we’re riffing off of Tron. And also, the Mayan 2012 myths, some jungle relics….” In his excitement, Hulsebos-Spofford almost resembles an eager kid, gushing about his favorite subjects in school. It is clear that this project has been brewing in his mind for a while. “This project has made me re-evaluate my practice,” he says. “It’s bringing my work together.”

The efforts of Hulsebos-Spofford, Razi, the students, and their families will culminate this upcoming weekend. On June 3 HyPa and Hulsebos-Spofford will be hosting a pre-launch event at the HyPa space from 6:30pm to 8pm. On June 4, he and his students invite everyone to head to Gary, Indiana for the long-awaited landing.