Last month, I profiled Roxaboxen Exhbitions, a DIY exhibition and venue space in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Roxaboxen is a space I really look up to here in the city and is one of my favorite spaces to visit and hang out at. When I initially visited Roxaboxen to investigate the space, I met with Liz, Brian, and Virginia. We had a great conversation about organizing, DIY spaces, and the development of Roxaboxen. I e-mailed them with some follow-up questions to get a more in-depth look at how Roxaboxen works.
This space is multifaceted and in constant flux. So right now, I just want to clarify that the descriptions you’re getting are from myself, Virginia Aberle, and Brian Gallagher. In the past, aspects of the space have been misrepresented because one or another person expresses their ideas about the space–which really exists on a lot of different planes–and it gets oversimplified. I don’t want to completely answer these questions but give you the most relevant information, and a general response to elements I think your questions are reaching at. Brian and Virginia will respond too.
I think the best start is creating the timeline of the characters and circumstances of us creating this space. Kyle Stephens and I went to a small liberal arts school in Asheville, North Carolina. We were graduating from a BFA photo program and wanted to have some grand landing in a more urban environment. I suggested Chicago because I grew up here (in the burbs) and had seen some of the alternative space scene thriving in Pilsen. Simultaneously, Miranda Stokes (a Providence by way of Chicago friend of Kyle’s) was graduating from SAIC and had been drafting manifestos for her own aspirations for the DIY Arts Space of our dreams–We discussed combining forces…
Miranda found the perfect space for us—an old funeral home. We picked up two roommates looking for alternative living situations and Roxaboxen was born.
In our short tenure, we’ve had a lot of members, who all bring their own vision and personality to the programming. Our mission is basic: to give people the opportunity to express themselves in the space, expose/create an audience for those expressions, and hopefully, everyone learns something in the process and—at least—has fun.
Members have left/relocated and more Norh Carolinians and Chicagoans have translated their voice into programming. We’ve added a studio co-op endeavor, which aids in integrating a steady art practice and creative energy in the space. I like Caroline Picard’s description of the collective as “a forum for a constant flux of humans and ideas.” This, the best way to describe the current state of what Roxaboxen is give you a run-down of the current roster of residents/collective members and how they function within the space.
I’m the business hermit–holed up in my room/studio, answering emails and doing scheduling, creating promotional materials. My interest in the space has always been mostly visual art based and my programming contributions are mostly solo and group shows–like the “Black Arts” group show which is opening on May 4th and running through June 2nd. Outside of the space, I maintain an art career (which is sometimes a struggle). For money, I make random income waitressing, freelance teaching, and working in an antique auction house.
Miranda Stokes and Bart Winters (also known as Coffin Ships, Miranda has performed solo as Red Delicious and is a volunteer member of the Arts of Life Band) contribute a lot of comedy and music based programming–including a few notable annual events–the Tears of Joy comedy show and Calvin Johnson (of Beat Happening/Olympia indie scene fame). Bart (and Kyle) also began an annual 24-hour horror film festival. Bart (who works at Millennium Park by day) is also handy men extraordinaire–rebuilding showers, putting sump pumps and doing electrical work like a champ. Miranda works Customer Service at Groupon.
Brian on Brian:
I moved to Chicago to be with food. I was an editorial assistant and freelance writer in Western North Carolina for two years of the post-undergraduate haze, during which I drifted more and more into food and culture writing. Yada, yada, yada, I moved to Chicago. I’ve been a baker of bagels, an egg cook and pancake flipper at a diner; I’ve washed dishes and plated food for fancy chefs at an underground restaurant, and am now plumbing the strange and Byzantine depths of grocery and dairy distribution with Whole Foods. Despite what Virginia and Liz may tell you, I keep worms alive for vermicompost and am heading up a garden project with everybody this Spring.
Virginia is an object maker and painter who is originally from Miami but got her BFA at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. Now living in Chicago, she is co-director at Roxaboxen Exhibitions, and a founding member of CUSP, Chicago Unconventional Spaces and Projects, aimed at finding more opportunities for young artists in Chicagos new cultural plan. She is currently working on her upcoming and solo show in Chicago at Heaven Gallery. She works slinging and studying wine. Rhonda Lowry is a musician and artist from Atlanta (by way of SAIC) and the most recent addition to the family. She is about to finish her undergraduate work in Visual and Critical Studies. She’s a rock ‘n’ roll drummer, most recently for Bomb Banks. Lindsey Zimmer is a masterful seamstress and dog lover. Maybe the best at party decorations. She works for an animal clinic. Young Joon Kwak contributes a tremendous amount of support. Between putting in time in the studio here and performing as Lil ‘Elote in XINA XURNER, Young helps out around the house, lends a ton of enthusiasm for everything that goes on around here. Sadly, he’ll be leaving us for Grad school at the University of Southern California. Levi Budd is an SAIC student and a gentle man of the prairie. He’ll be starting his second year of an MFA in the Painting and Drawing department of SAIC. Josh Minkus sticks to his basement studio diligently and plans to expose some of his labors of love in a show in the fall. He works at Nightwood. Megan Diddie is also a studio maestro and makes intricately detailed ink work while fighting off the trash that building up in front of her studio. She’ll be attending University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana for Grad school in the fall. She nannies.
What do you do outside of organizing for Roxaboxen? How do you balance work, programming at Roxaboxen, and a personal artistic practice? Do you ever find these different aspects crossing over and feeding into each other? Do you consider your programming work at Roxaboxen to be an aspect of your art practice?
Brian: We’re all constantly trying to find balance between what we do for money and what we do at Roxaboxen. It can be a struggle at times, but we’ve learned from experience that there’s nothing wrong with putting in a little elbow grease to bring in the bread, but you can’t live on bread alone.
What background do you have and what brings you to a collective living/exhibition space such as Roxaboxen? Do you have goals or a mission for living/working at Roxaboxen?
I think we’ve each (of us at Roxaboxen) been witness to various communal living situations and group ideations like this. Whether in Providence (Miranda), Chicago, San Francisco, or North Carolina, those experiences have been influential to how we think and how we want to live. We wanna fight the good fight and create a support system in our personal lives–where we can rely on each other’s resources and individual talents not just for basic needs–but also give time and energy to an entity that provides for a lot of creative expression within our community. It’s an ongoing, alchemic process. We’ve got a set of personalities, abilities, and goals within all of these creative people, and we are constantly applying, adjusting, and readjusting methods of running the gallery, keeping up studio spaces, putting in the elbow grease, reaching for our personal goals, etc. Sometimes we get lucky and transmute all of that into gold–sometimes not, but we always learn something.
Roxaboxen is a part of the Pilsen neighborhood, surrounded by families, businesses, the train, and other arts organizations. What relationships do you have with the various elements of your neighborhood? How do you engage with them as individuals and as a space? —– You have made connections with a wide range of organizations from the Chicago community, from more DIY arts organizations such as No Coast Collective to institutions such as SAIC and the Chicago Public Schools as well as community-based organizations such as Yollocalli. How have these connections been built? Why do you feel that it is important for a space such as Roxaboxen to connect with such a wide range of organizations? How is Roxaboxen positioned to be able to form these connections that a different type of space may not be?
We think about this question a lot and I think that we’re still developing opinions/thoughts about where this space exists in time and space within this neighborhood. It goes without saying that Pilsen has a strong cultural identity and tradition that we have a lot of respect for–in particular because it’s so visual. It’s not just the murals, either. You can read the history of the place in the little architectural genetic pools of houses, the elevation difference between houses and the street, the restaurants–everything.
For two years now, we’ve participated in the Pilsen Art Walk, which I believe is important for us and especially important for this side of the neighborhood. There are a lot of spaces around here with a lot of really great programming and the community is supportive. We’re working on a partnership with Yollocalli–hopefully we’ll be hosting some workshops by them soon.
ACRE has been a critical resource and inspiration for us (and this community). We get the privilege of showing four ACRE artists every year, but they’ve also lent us equipment when we were in a pinch, led workshops, and just in general, been a great leader in the DIY arts organization scene. We look up to them a lot.
When we talked before, you talked a lot about how the space used to host a lot of music events but since then you have learned what type of events you do/don’t want to have at Roxaboxen. Can you talk about your process of learning what you are/not interested in exhibiting at your space? What do you look for in an event to host?
We’ve worked with a whole host of artists, and I’m proud of all those shows because those individuals put a lot of effort and honesty into their work. Liz has curated the vast majority of that, and has a really sharp sense about what makes a good show. I don’t think there are any set rules for it–it’s mostly governed by people’s energy and effort. Honestly, the things that have worked, have worked because people found out about them and invested time and energy into making sure they keep on going. Stitchy, a somewhat-monthly/bi-monthly fiber arts club, has been one of the longest running, most successful events and that’s mainly due to the efforts of Anthony Stepter. He brings in great speakers (including Anne Elizabeth Moore, Emily Green, many others), which is a big draw for sure, but he is also terrific at creating an inclusive, learning-centered, fun atmosphere for the event.
Maybe this goes for a lot of your questions, but I think human beings have a basic need to create and it’s as important as any other necessity. And that’s been my biggest realization living here. We’re trying to appeal to and connect with that impulse with as many people as possible in a positive and constructive way. Simple as that.