Roxaboxen Exhibitions is a DIY space located near Leavitt and 21st St in the Pilsen neighborhood. It is a grey, split-level stone building with a piqued façade that makes it look like a little castle. In its past lives, the space existed as a bookstore, an office, and a funeral home. The building itself has many layers with studio space and evidence of creative production tucked into every corner.
When you enter the glass doors, you step into a pastel pink foyer. Immediately beyond is Roxaboxen’s 18’x 48’ gallery. Turning to the right of the door, you are presented with a few choices as to how to enter the rest of the space. An initial flight of stairs to the left leads down behind a curtain to the basement studio and work spaces below. A second set of carpeted stairs will wind you up to the second level of the building where most of the bedrooms are located. If you continue along the initial hallway, you’ll pass through a second antechamber, through a set of square-paned glass doors to the left, and into a common space with a linoleum floor, mis-matched chairs and couches, and a studio space in the corner. Beyond this, through another door, is the bright red kitchen. In the rear of the kitchen, a doorway leads to a white-washed wooden stair case which can bring you back up or down to any of the other layers of the house or out to the backyard.
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I remember the first time that I went to Roxaboxen. It was about two years ago when I was living in my old apartment above the corner store on Damen and Cermak. I went for a music show and all I saw of the space then was the darkened gallery, filled with people. At the time I didn’t really know that much about DIY spaces in Chicago. I don’t remember how I heard about the show; I didn’t know any of the bands that were playing or anyone else who was going. I guess I just didn’t have anything else to do and thought I should get out and see what was going on in my neighborhood.
This recollection may seem anecdotal, but I think it is actually quite representative of Roxaboxen’s role as a space within Pilsen and within the Chicago DIY community – that even as someone still relatively new to the city, I found out about an event going on there. I see Roxaboxen as sort of a big-sister Pilsen DIY space. The events and programming that take place there and the partnerships that they have formed with the community inspire me as a fellow artist and organizer in the city.
Liz McCarthy, Kyle Stephens, and Miranda Stokes started Roxaboxen Exhibitions in November of 2009. There are five people who live there officially but Roxaboxen also functions as a studio co-op for local artists. They started the studio spaces about one year after the initiation of Roxaboxen. The number of studios varies by season (there are more studios that can be used in the summer). Rent from the studios helps pay for gallery maintenance and also builds the community around Roxaboxen. Those involved with the space see each other as a family. Everyone within the space has different levels of participation in the programming that goes on there. Not everyone who lives there is involved with running the space and some of the studio artists do not live there but help with the programming.
Like many DIY spaces, Roxaboxen originally began by hosting a lot of music shows. They used these shows to raise money to maintain the gallery, but eventually learned that they didn’t want to focus on music and would like to host more proactive events instead. Since then, they have grown up a lot. Now, Roxaboxen has fewer music shows and organizes a broad range of events. They have learned about what they want to host in the space and what they don’t want to be involved with. The alternative nature and varied history of Roxaboxen makes it more flexible and relaxed than most galleries. They want artists to be able to come in and do whatever they want in the space. This flexibility and freedom has allowed them to host a range of happenings across the board.
Aside from visual and performing art events, Roxaboxen has hosted stand up comedy, a dance-off, an all night movie festival, yoga, dance parties, plays, dance performance, and a rummage sale. They are planning a workshop series that will include wall building, cyanotype, weaving, and bookbinding workshops. A friend of mine, Anthony Stepter, a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, hosts Stitchy! – a sewing party for all skill levels – at Roxaboxen. On a Sunday night once a month, people get together with their sewing (or knitting, or weaving, or whatever) projects and hang out and chat and sew and eat snacks. He also invites guest artists to speak about their work each evening, so sewers get to hear a mini lecture by an awesome local artist.
Roxaboxen partners with many different artists and organizations from throughout Pilsen and Chicago to host these events. When I visited the space recently, More or Less, a solo show by artist Matt McWilliams was on display in the gallery. This show was the result of a partnership with the ACRE residency program in which each resident artist gets a show in a local gallery within the year following their residency. Besides ACRE and Stitchy!, Roxaboxen has partnered with the University of Chicago, Green Lantern Press, Pilsen Open Studios, Chicago Public Schools, Yollocalli, Co-Prosperity Sphere, Version Fest, No Coast Collective, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Columbia College.
Some upcoming events at Roxaboxen include Black Arts, a group show playing with the idea of the female archetype of “witch”, opening May 4th, and a solo show of the work of Josh Minkus, one of the studio artists, date not yet set. Roxaboxen artists with upcoming shows include Liz McCarthy who will be showing at the end of June at the Harold Washington College Presidents Gallery, and Virginia Aberle at Heaven Gallery on June 15th.