One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Artwork | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Artwork

Parts of the "Tragic Beauty" exhibit enjoy a brief second life as a refuge for the homeless.

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Anna, a 45-year-old grandmother from Roseland, sat on the steps beneath the entrance dock of a boarded-up building on Elston just south of Armitage. It was an unseasonably warm afternoon in early April, and Anna was having a smoke outside the artwork she was living in. Next to her was a ramshackle collection of panels made of plywood and shipping pallets, onto which painted wood objects, scraps of lumber, store signage, and other street detritus had been screwed together to form three-dimensional collages. One panel was attached to a wall; others laid in a pile, under which she had room to sleep and keep her few possessions. Other art-festooned pieces were propped against the wall around the corner. She said another woman, Isabel, had been using those, but wasn't around--her shopping cart was gone.

The building, which looks like it must have been a restaurant or nightclub, was a bit dilapidated. The site had become a catcher for windblown trash, and the artworks might easily be mistaken for other bits of debris, but Anna's unlikely shelter had attracted some notice.

"People pass by and look at it," said Anna, who told me that she used to work as a nurse's aide before she developed a drug habit and began living on the streets two years ago. "Last week a white woman drove up in a big car and gave me ten dollars for something to eat. She said she liked the art, too. It's just different, that's what amazes me. I like different art. It's like world art. It has all the different kinds of things going on in the world, like the sun, the moon, the clouds. The art tells you about our world."

The works are the remnants of pieces created by four local artists--Juan Chavez, Mike Genovese, Cody Hudson, and Chris Silva. Together and individually, for the past few years they've searched alleys and junk-strewn lots for cast-off materials, which they make into collages that they later surreptitiously slap onto vacant storefronts, construction fences, and other unused spaces, most often in West Town and Pilsen. Few of the dozens of street installations they've created survived more than a few weeks before they were torn down or scavenged, which is part of their point: the pieces are meant to reflect the cycles of urban reclamation and decay. Some pieces are more durable, however; parts of an artwork they installed at the building on Elston in December were still there last week.

"It brings up questions like 'What's in the public domain?'" says Chavez, who has also worked on many murals throughout the city, including commissioned mosaics at two CTA stations. "What's a precious object? What belongs somewhere, what doesn't belong somewhere? Who owns this place, who doesn't own this place? Whose property is it? If it's not in the public, who does it belong to? And, by my claiming or taking that space over to install these pieces, am I saying that this object is mine? And what is my right to put it here, and what is [anyone's] right to get offended?"

Silva, a former graffiti artist, is less philosophical. "It's fun creating art for the streets--it's what I'd be doing if I didn't have to make a living as an artist," he says. "I think it adds something to the environment and the social fabric of the city."

Anna and Isabel's shelters were originally part of "Tragic Beauty," a group exhibition that opened at the Open End Gallery on West Fulton in early March. Chavez, Silva, and Hudson, a graphic designer, created wall collages, while Genovese, a sign painter, constructed a hut. All four worked on what they called a "shipwreck": a boatlike structure, complete with makeshift masts and sails, that doubled as a stage for weekly concerts. They also worked together on the entrance to the exhibit, a threshold and vestibule made of pallets and other wood materials, which they would later bring to the building on Elston.

The artists intended to return "Tragic Beauty" to the streets once the exhibition closed on March 26, so the pieces--the largest they ever created together--were designed to be easily broken down and reassembled. "We thought, we're making large enough structures that you could live on or live in--they're actually functional structures," says Chavez. "And what are we gonna do with something like that afterward? We're so used to doing flat collage pieces that you could attach to any wall. Now we had to start thinking about the implications of three-dimensional objects in space. . . . You start thinking about your footprint."

During a few days in late March and early April, the artists piled the pieces into trucks and installed them around town. Some of the wall collages were attached to a wooden fence along Milwaukee just north of Moffat; others were installed in the back of a vacant lot on North Avenue and Bosworth. They reconstructed the hut on a railroad viaduct near Wood and Carroll, and put the "shipwreck" on a railroad embankment near Cermak and Canal--not far from an actual boatyard. Armed with power screwdrivers, the four worked in the daytime to avoid arousing suspicion. They drew scant notice.

Genovese says he and his cohorts knew that homeless people encamped around the vacant building on Elston. "So when it came time to tear that entranceway out of the show, we thought that would be a great place," he says. "It'd be a little decorative shelter for them."

When they unloaded the work, they found Anna nestled inside a cardboard box beneath the roof of the dock. "I thought it might benefit them in some way," says Silva. "I was just concerned it was something that wouldn't make them feel unsafe. I was also thinking that they wouldn't be into it, because it might attract more attention to them--that they might want to be a little more under the radar."

But Anna said it was OK. The artists set up the structure just like they did for the exhibit, and Anna made it her home almost immediately. "I thought it was great," says Genovese. "The work takes on a whole other dimension. It takes it away from us, and it becomes art that's not art anymore."

A few days later the four drove by and noticed the artwork had been dismantled, its pieces heaped on the concrete. Chavez briefly panicked: what if its occupant had been crushed to death? Could they be held responsible? But no one was there. (Isabel said a homeless man, jealous, tore down the installation.) Instead of trying to put it back together, the artists tidied up the pile and moved a couple of the pallets around the corner, propping them against the side of the building. Isabel soon moved in.

Anna wasn't at the building on Elston when I stopped by again in mid-April. Earlier in the month she told me she was going to try to straighten out her life: she was planning to move in with her parents in Roseland and enter a drug treatment program. She hoped to reunite with her family and land another job as a caregiver for the elderly.

But Isabel said Anna was still living here--she just wasn't around right then. Isabel leaned against her shopping cart, which was parked next to her wall shelter; one of the pallets was adorned with a large yellow wooden flower. A Jamaican native, she told me she'd been living on the streets for 15 years and preferred to live that way. Being able to sleep behind the artwork for the past couple of weeks had helped. "It's giving me a house--I don't mind," she said. "It's peaceful here, away from all the noise and traffic."

A week later, Isabel's home was gone. She and her shopping cart weren't there either. Anna was also missing, though part of her home was still there. It was hard to tell if Anna was away for the afternoon, was rousted out, or was pursuing her new life on the south side. Strewn among the wood pile were her belongings: sleeping bags, blankets, a couple of pairs of shoes, bottles, a typewriter case stuffed with clothes, and books--Introduction to Anthropology, An Illustrated History of South Africa, African Americans: Voices of Triumph.

Earlier this week a homeless man was spotted trundling pieces of Anna's shelter away in a shopping cart. On Tuesday the site was cleared of pallets, and many of Anna's possessions were gone. The artwork installed in December is still attached to the wall, but "Tragic Beauty" is fast disappearing. The hut blew over and collapsed a few days after it was put up; some pieces of it were still there last week. The "shipwreck" survived nearly three weeks before it vanished. There are still remnants of the wall collages on Milwaukee and on North, where a wooden bird on a pole is perched atop an unused billboard structure.

"Even though you approach it with detachment, when it's gone, you're like, 'Well, there it goes,'" says Genovese. "What happened to it? Who's got it? Who took it? It creates a mystery, a story, a fourth dimension of time. It'd be interesting if it pops up somewhere, if it didn't wind up in the dump."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell, Chris Silva.

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