Turning the Dial

Elizabeth Szwaya

“Oh, I’m not proud,” George Kagan says. “I don’t like the idea of pride.” But it’s hard not to imagine a justified hint of it as he weaves the tale of his 62 handcrafted radios, which are now on display at Hyde Park’s Southside Hub of Production (SHoP).

A diminutive, neatly dressed man, Kagan parts his frosty hair to the side and studies his subjects from behind large, round eyeglasses. As he points out the salient features of a few particular radios, he takes periodic sips of coffee and glances at the floor to gather his thoughts. Every word and movement is deliberate. His quirky project and demeanor have piqued the curiosity of the audience at the South Side Hub of Production who have assembled to see the man behind the towers of radios.

His creations come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, though each one carries the clean lines and vibrant hues characteristic of Kagan’s style. He uses salvaged parts from factory- and foreign-manufactured radios, uniting plastic with wood and juxtaposing the industrial and natural, the contemporary and classic. He draws on the Art Deco period, automobile design, and the Golden Ratio.

The exhibit was curated under the direction of the Hyde Park Kunstverein, a community arts initiative headquartered at SHoP. Laura Shaeffer, SHoP coordinator and fellow member of the First Unitarian Church, approached Kagan about displaying his work, and he agreed to sign on. He says he was curious to see the “public reaction,” and because he wanted to get the radios out of his apartment, which he described as “nonfunctional” after years of building and tinkering.

Kagan grew up in Hyde Park and attended the University of Chicago, earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology. One summer between terms, he looked for a job that would pay him for his love of crafting, and found work in a factory that manufactured recording devices. Initially he imagined that he would work on a piece from start to finish, but to his surprise and disappointment, he was assigned a single task on the assembly line. Reflecting on the experience, he sighs. “It was alienating, very much so.”

His experience in the throes of industrial production and the available yet rusting equipment of public wood shops jointly inspired his radio project. The spark was an advertisement for the postwar German radio manufacturer, Grundig, which was reviving the production of their elegant wooden radios. Kagan thought: “If they can do it, why can’t we?”

Kagan built his first radio in 1997 on his kitchen floor, then moved his operations to a wood shop in Washington Park. As Chicago’s public wood shops closed due to a lack of funding, Kagan moved around. He blames the closures on the disinterest of area youth in woodworking and their preference for basketball. Although, he admits, “Sport is… a performing art,” he believes that in order for an art to qualify as a craft, there must be a tangible product–the result of the union of human foresight and the material world. You can’t write your name on a free throw.

In the end, Kagan says that while building the radios was not a source of pride, it was “satisfying work.” However, after a devastating divorce in 2009, Kagan abandoned the radios to return to psychology, wanting “to understand what went wrong.” He has read 42 books in the past two years–research for a novel he plans to write on spousal abuse. How long will he spend on this new project? He replies simply, “Writing a book is harder than building a radio.”

When asked what motivates him to undertake these numerous projects, he pauses to exhale. After a moment, he responds: “Probably the fear of ignorance…it’s a part of humanity. My motivation’s probably the same as yours.”

Southside Hub of Production, 5638 S. Woodlawn Ave. Through December 31. For more information, e-mail info.southsidehub@gmail.com

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