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Remembering Dawn Mallozzi

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By Terri Kapsalis and John Corbett

At the peak of last fall's harvest Dawn Mallozzi bought some tomatoes from the Evanston farmers' market. She stewed them for the better part of an afternoon, seasoning them with a touch of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then she served them to us for dinner--amplified tomato, explosively earthy and sweet. For Dawn, elaboration was often a process of elimination.

Dawn Mallozzi died at home on August 8, only a few short months after being diagnosed with cancer; in June she celebrated her 50th birthday. She lived her life with the intense care of an artist. Selecting vegetables, fruit, and flowers at the market, which we did with Dawn and her husband, Lou, most Saturdays, was like choosing paints; taking tea was a lesson in arrangement, detail, elegance, and economy. The Andersonville apartment she and Lou shared is full of small installations of meticulously placed animal bones, driftwood, bird's nests, stones, metal objects, and other castoffs.

For Dawn, art was most importantly a way of exploring and building community. Two decades ago, it was a desire to create a focal point for a community that inspired her to cofound the Lake Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Michigan, which she directed from 1976 to 1981. As she wrote at the time: "I'm interested in places where culture, spirit, and commerce merge and thrive, driven and supported by a community of people, yet each person retains their individuality, for it is this individual energy that fuels the whole."

Dawn and Lou's creation, in 1986, of Experimental Sound Studio was a logical extension of this philosophy. Recording studios normally charge high hourly prices, making speculative, experimental production prohibitively expensive. And most engineers are trained to follow industry conventions, so the notion of, say, arranging microphones in buckets of water or rolling dice to decide how to set up the mixing board would be unthinkable to them.

Tucked next to the couple's apartment in a former bakery at Foster and Paulina, the tightly-run not-for-profit is both cheap--$35 an hour with an engineer, less without one--and refreshingly open-minded, its engineers well versed in the kinds of unorthodox techniques that might be requested by someone designing a site-specific sound installation or creating a sound track for an experimental film. While ESS's workshops include such subjects as vocal explorations and instrument invention, other, more technical classes are designed to teach people to be their own engineer.

A small, high-ceilinged one-room studio with an isolation booth, computers for editing, and wooden cold-storage lockers that once held dough and now house the studio's tape archive, ESS supports a staff of two full-timers, five freelance engineers, and various volunteers. It attracts a diverse array of clients, from musicians like George Lewis, David Grubbs, and Douglas Ewart to audio artists Jaap Blonk, Laetitia Sonami, and M.W. Burns, and performers like Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Lawrence Steger, and Goat Island. This year's Artist Residency Program allowed filmmaker Paula Froehle a week in the studio to compose the sound track for her new movie.

"Lou and Dawn were the first art people I met when I moved to Chicago in 1988," recalls Froehle. "What always struck me was their genuine interest in the development of other artists. It wasn't until this happened with Dawn that I thought about just exactly what ESS has been, the kind of sacrifice they must have gone through to create a place that would support experimental sound art. It's hard enough to be a functioning artist in the world, but to be a functioning artist who creates a space for other artists to work and develop and experiment is inspirational. It negates the image of the self-obsessed artist."

Dawn served as ESS's executive director from its inception, but she was herself an artist--in fact she had recently begun to focus more actively on her own sound creations--and it's hard to separate her art from the work of the studio. "On the surface you'd think here's Dawn the administrator and me the artist," says Lou. "In actuality it's much more complex than that. The way that she approached living in this artistic fashion, to a greater degree than I do, she was in a way the artist of the organization. And through the years I think we taught each other a lot of things, and the roles grew and informed one another. We taught each other, that was the strength of how our professional partnership worked."

Over the years, ESS has produced events at various city venues, including the Chicago Cultural Center, N.A.M.E., and Club Lower Links. Through outreach projects including youth programs with the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, Street Level Youth Media, and Chiaravale Montessori School, ESS became an integral part of the city's artistic connective tissue. Shortly before she was diagnosed, Dawn helped organize an international audio-art festival called Outer Ear, an undertaking that--though completely booked--has now been postponed for a year.

Born on the south side, in Brighton Park, and raised in Markham and Palos Heights, Dawn loved the city and the sounds and sights of its industrial zones. In 1995, she initiated the Chicago Soundscape Project, in which 60 contributors (artists and laypeople alike) were invited to create audio portraits of their communities. The public playback at Randolph Street Gallery included Dawn and Lou's glorious celebration of the hisses, chugs, wheezes, clangs, and hums of the southeast side's Acme Steel Company.

The task of maintaining a haven like ESS put demands on Dawn and Lou's other partnership. "I don't know how many small, nonprofit arts organizations have operated in the black for 13 years, but ours has, and not just on paper." says Lou. "We paid a certain price for that on a personal level, but ultimately what that meant was we had to continuously reevaluate our position with the studio. Initially, we probably sacrificed too much, but that's natural. As we got older, we came to see that it was important to take care of ourselves too, and that that would help strengthen the studio as well. It was never supposed to be about the myth of the starving artist--she hated that shit, and whenever it would get to be like that she would insist that we stop and reevaluate. That myth only exists to keep people powerless."

Dawn's determination was offset by an overriding sense of decorum, an orderly peace that she sought as much in daily life as in her administration of ESS. "Gentility had to exist in everything," Lou recalls. "It had to exist in the studio and when people came over for dinner. We would go to Isaacson & Stein to shop for fish, where we were sort of adopted by this guy Dave who works there. Dave and Dawn hit it off so well. He's the most genteel person, like he's from another era, and we became connected to him. Forklifts of crabs and inches of stinky fish water, a pretty intense scene, and he's like this little lighthouse there in the middle of everything, kissing Dawn on the cheek and saying hello to everyone. Those were the people she connected with."

Excerpts of Dawn's recordings will be played this weekend at a memorial celebration, which is open to the public. It starts at three on Sunday, August 22, at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1650 W. Foster. A postcard announcing the memorial nicely captures the spirit of Dawn's work, or more aptly her life-as-a-work: the photo on the card shows Dawn with a serene, yet slightly devilish grin, a cherubesque angel tucked under one arm and a monkey wrench in the other hand. Elbow grease and celestial vision. She had the tools to do the job and she knew how to use them.

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