The smell of paint stings the air as you stand in a stranger’s kitchen. Adjusting a pair of headphones, you take a long sip of wine considering a surreal multi-media installation. Next, you turn down a dim alley, following a sign that promises, “Bad Reading” only to happen upon a courtyard adorned in strands of twinkling light. One room resonates with the visceral stomp of a gorgeous flamenco troupe, and you can’t even see through the spectator thronged windows. Two writers spin supernatural stories in the room across the way. Wrapped up in their yarns, you catch a chill, but it’s only an early autumn breeze blowing in tinsel that hangs in the door frame. You amble toward a gallery around the corner. It’s Friday night and you’re in Pilsen.
Known as the Chicago Arts District, the area in Pilsen surrounding South Halsted and 18th Streets is home to several galleries, studios, and creative spaces. Each month, around 30 of the area’s artistic spaces are open to the public as part of the 2nd Fridays Gallery Night. Between 6 and 10 pm, this free event gives you access to the places where Chicago artists live, create, and showcase their work. This weekend, the 41st Annual PilsenEast Artists’ Open House offers another opportunity to experience first-hand the faces and spaces of this creative community. As part of Chicago Artists Month in October, more than 65 artistic environments will be open for public exploration.
Pick up a map at the event information center (1821 S Halsted St.) or just stroll between open spaces on this self-guided tour. You may be drawn in by the siren song of a live blues band, or a bright light display artist. Other spaces are marked with a makeshift sign in a dimly lit corridor directing you to a “gallery” upstairs. One window display features stark elemental wood sculptures, one a curious yarn installation, and the next a probing social commentary utilizing televisions. A collection of pen & ink drawings interpreting Pinocchio are revealed to be the stirring catharsis in coping with a parent’s death, as discovered in a rare and enlightening discussion with the artist herself.
Pilsen, while growing ever more popular, is still an overlooked feast of inspiration in Chicago. The Artists’ Open House and 2nd Fridays offer an unequivocally intimate encounter with artists and galleriests in their working and living spaces. When I ask an artist why they produce in Pilsen, chatting in her living room and nibbling on pastries made by her aunt, the reply is straightforward, “the artistic community is unequaled.” As much as my spirit soars in an art museum, and ruminates in a well-curated gallery selection, the connection made viewing a work in its birth space cannot be overestimated. Noticing disregarded paint spatters on the floor, a sheet hanging to cover the exposed contents of a closet or pantry, the sleeping space in a small gallery, the dishes in the sink – all of this reminds you that this is someone’s passion, that they are living it. Suddenly, no matter your initial reaction to their work, a deeper significance is illuminated.
Back on the street, you find yourself taking place in an interactive music installation. “We want to engage people with music and everyday items they can interact with,” you are told while drumming with PVC pipe. “This way everyone is a part of it, and the experience keeps changing.” The Chicago Arts District reminds us that art is out there. It needn’t be erudite or unapproachable. Walk with it, breathe it in, play it, question it, and consume it in Pilsen.