Out but not Down

Claire Hungerford/Ethan Tate

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The sound of children sets Fenn House apart from its neighbors. A sunny Friday afternoon on a week when schools are out for spring break elicits inevitable shouts and laughter from children pouring out of the house. They duck in and out of a  wooden makeshift lean-to erected on the front lawn, a tribute to 1968’s Resurrection City in Washington D.C. and 2012’s Occupy movement in Chicago.

Currently, the space is home to the Southside Hub of Production (SHoP). Just as the modest wooden structure in the yard at 57th and Woodlawn brings together events from different times and places, SHoP was intended from its beginnings in October 2011 to provide a meeting point for differing perspectives. “We wanted to pull people of different backgrounds and ages and social backgrounds, drawing them into one space so that they might make connections they didn’t think they could make before,” Laura Shaeffer, SHoP’s creative director, explains.

To that end, SHoP has carefully cultivated a relationship with artists and residents of Hyde Park. No stranger to the neighborhood’s art community, this relationship was built upon SHoP’s previous guise as the Op Shop, a nomadic project which moved from storefront to storefront throughout the neighborhood. Shaeffer describes the valuable lessons learned through Op Shop’s four iterations.

“Because they were on four different corners on four different streets, you really got to know the demographics and how they do shift between blocks,” she says. “I learned so much about my community and my neighborhood through the Op Shop, and I thought it was very successful.”

She continues, “On the practical level, though, one seeks some kind of stability, and it became very obvious to me that the ideas that were the focal points of our projects needed a longer time to develop. To have a communitybuilding center, you really need longer than one month.”

Traditions and projects which have benefited from having a permanent space in Fenn House include weekly Sunday night potlucks and a small thrift store which, stocks everything from personally drawn postcards to luxurious men’s coats.

SHoP’s current arrangement, however, will soon be coming to an end in the summer with the expiration of their lease from the Unitarian Church. For Shaeffer, this new uncertainty about her own artistic future is both exciting and nerve-wracking.

On one hand, she explains that moving away from the current location allows for the next stage in the evolution of her long-term artistic project. In her view, projects like SHoP need to change with the needs of a community. “I really do treasure the freedom in being able to revisit something from a different perspective,” says Shaeffer. “There’s a freedom in not having a manifesto, and instead being responsive to the community.”

Yet, it is uncertain that the organization will find its next location in Hyde Park. They are in talks with Alderman Willie Cochran for a possible move to an open lot in Woodlawn–a change that would pose new questions for SHoP.

“When you go to a new neighborhood, you’re committed to understanding and learning about it. Woodlawn would be very different in feel and demographics, history and politics, and so we would require a new relationship with the community,” Shaeffer says. Even though her community art would have to adapt to these new surroundings, she insists that she would welcome a challenge of this nature.

What seems likely is that the new project will be centered on children and the ways in which they engage with artwork. For her next project, Shaeffer envisions a junkyard playground, a concept adapted from Denmark in the wake of the Second World War. Though a vacant lot in Woodlawn is a far cry from the rubble caused by global war, she still sees a great potential in children learning about subjects like woodworking. Ultimately, she hopes the children can put those lessons into practice by building something themselves.

This would, however, be old territory for Shaeffer and her partners in SHoP. The educative possibilities of art are already at the forefront of their installations, and much work has gone into making their current Fenn House a space for play. Time and again, this passion for engaging with children and families shines through when Shaeffer speaks. Much of this can be attributed to her own dual responsibilities as an artist and a parent, a tension which she wanted to solve in setting up SHoP.

“SHoP was always meant to be an intergenerational space, focusing a lot on the family. It’s a space where you can come with kids, or where you can even come as an older person to interact with children,” she explains.

“We need to be artists and parents at the same time and we cannot separate that,” she continues. “It’s enlivening to come into a space that is full of voices and cries. It’s fairly chaotic sometimes! But it’s orchestrated chaos.”

It is thus unsurprising that Fenn House is nearly always filled with the sound of giddy children dashing about. While their current space is well-endowed with plenty of space and a large, welcoming yard, there is the distinct possibility that the next location will be much smaller. To Shaeffer, such a transition wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

“We’re in a mansion now, and maybe I won’t need a mansion when I move!”

Underneath these tangled issues of location, neighborhood, and community lies the central question: What is home? It is a question she has sought to answer through the art on display at the Southside Hub, most notably in “This House Is Not a Home,” an installation which opened at the end of February. “We wanted to talk about home, and then broadening that to what makes the feeling of being at home, even if that home isn’t necessarily a physical structure,” she states. “Places like prison become your home but are not your home at the same time, so we wanted to open it up as broadly as we could.”

The pressures of being an artist and having a family at the same time also came to the fore, she says, because “some of the people in the show talked about how to be an artist and a person who has a family, and how to involve your children in that creative process.”

It therefore becomes clear that her immediate artistic interests are deeply intertwined with the larger fate of SHoP, and her life more generally. It is only fitting, then, that the last show before their move away from Fenn House will be anchored by the idea of leaving.

“The last show we’re going to title “On How Much Things Matter,” and it’ll be about ends,” she says. “We do not want this to be heavy and somber, but we wanted to end with thought and reflection on endings. What we leave behind, what we take with us, how we leave spaces.”

To leave, however, one needs a destination. Shaeffer is still unsure where that will be, and how a move away from Fenn House would be financed. She offers up a variety of possible routes, ranging from the realistic to the relatively far-fetched.

“There’s the possibility that an angel sweeps down and decides that he needs to buy this building because the Southside Hub is serving the larger community and bringing people together through the arts,” she says hopefully. “Or there’s the possibility that ten people decide to invest in this space because this building isn’t going to lose its value and it’s a good investment.”

Yet, regardless of the outcome, she remains optimistic. “Otherwise, we all leave and pack up, enjoy the wonderful year and know it was a great ending. The lease is up on July 31st, and I’m very sure everything will be clear by mid-July.”