Amy Ahlstrom says her ideas didn't sit well with other students in art school. Originally a painter, Ahlstrom, who earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 1995, had turned to quilt making, silk-screening medical illustrations and images from comic books on the quilts. At her final critique, "Half the people there were like, 'You just need to be a painter. You should just be painting on canvas,' and the other people were like, 'Well, this isn't really like a quilt. You need to have more fabric on this,' or 'It needs to be stitched more.'" One student went so far as to call her an outsider artist. "I mean, you can't walk in the door at the Art Institute and be an outsider artist!"
Devorah Heitner, who combines Super-8 and video footage in her work, had a similar experience at SAIC. "People were really mad at me for mixing film and tape. I had the boys upstairs in the film department being all 'You can't use video, it's ugly.' And the girls downstairs being like, 'Well, if you're queer you can't use film because it's really male and oppressive and for the wealthy and not democratic.' But I wanted to mix and match!"
In 1994 Ahlstrom and Heitner met at a meeting of the Rotifers, a women's discussion group loosely focused on politics. Though the group--which Heitner describes as "a brief Wicker Park phenomenon"--didn't last, the two remained friends.
They discovered that in addition to feeling artistically isolated, they also shared a semiautobiographical bent. Ahlstrom, who's 27, created her comic Sticky Crawler after seeing "other comics artists who were men in their 30s doing stories about teenage girls, and I was like, dammit, I was a teenage girl. I should do stories about that." She describes the comic as "a postpunk mix of riot-grrrl-informed feminism and pop culture, absurdity, and angst." One ongoing story about the adventures of two 20ish hipsters explores, in flashback, the passionate best-friendship of Ollie and Mina, two suburban skate punks on the verge of high school. Ahlstrom says the comic is "about being a girl, and thinking, 'What was that like for me? How can I relate that to other people?'"
The 23-year-old Heitner's battle with depression formed the basis of her last film, Guidelines for Accepting Reality. Her current project, tentatively titled "Things Other Girls Know," digs into the significance of her habit of starting relationships with girls and women who have lost their mothers. Heitner's own mother recently died after a ten-year battle with cancer.
"I was really interested in whether there was something about women whose mothers had died that was attractive to me in some way. Independence, or a certain toughness, or something," she says. "One was a girl I was friends with in high school. My mother got sick when I was in seventh grade, and this girl, her mom died when we were in junior high. About the same time my mom got sick, her mom died of breast cancer. So I always had this relationship with her where I was really obsessed with her because I thought she was what I would become."
"Anybody who says that art isn't therapy," Ahlstrom says, "they're lying."
Ahlstrom and Heitner share a belief in the democratizing power of cheaper media like Super-8 film, Xerox art, and zines. For a while Ahlstrom worked with Humboldt Park teenagers on zine-making projects through Gallery 37. "I would walk them through the process and say, 'You really can go to the copy store and make this and you can put your stuff out there. Your work can be out there and people are going to read it.'"
Yet making even relatively inexpensive art can cost a small fortune. Both artists received grants this year through the city's Community Arts Assistance Program, and Heitner is producing "Things Other Girls Know" with an additional grant from Film Video Arts in New York City.
Through the Rotifers and more enduring organizations like Women in the Director's Chair, Ahlstrom and Heitner found, to some degree, a sense of belonging. But they say they're still looking for a place of their own. "So we thought we should have a party," says Heitner.
To raise money for their work, they've come up with a "teen-themed" benefit called "Angst in Your Pangs," which they hope will encourage adults to wax nostalgic about those difficult years and expose teenagers to a group of people who may be a lot like them. For the party, which will feature live music, a DJ, and an open mike, Ahlstrom is working on a performance piece about her favorite teen movies, while Heitner "has some high school journal entries that I'm looking over, to see if I can bear to read them." They're trying to promote the benefit to queer youth groups and at places where misfit teenagers might congregate. Says Heitner, "One time I gave the flyer to some punk rock Lane Tech students that were hanging out in front
of Dunkin' Donuts."
"Angst in Your Pangs" happens next Thursday, October 22, at 8 at Fizz Bar & Grill, 3220 N. Lincoln. Kristen Mohr, the Open-Mike All Stars, and bands Jank and Dolce Volante will perform, and DJ Mystery Date will spin. Admission is $10. Call 773-334-3751 for more. --Martha Bayne
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Amy Ahlstrom, Deborah Heitner photo by Nathan Mandell.