Pod People Take Over
Nobody talks in the Land of Pod, says sculptor Kenneth Morrison: they're afraid of being exiled. "I'm one of the only people I know who has nothing to lose, because I own my own building." Morrison is standing in the belly of the Whale, the frame outpost at the corner of Canalport and Halsted that is his home and studio, as well as the clubhouse for the Ever-So-Secret Order of the Lamprey, his weekly artists' salon. The Whale has a commanding view of the Land of Pod, which runs straight up Halsted for four blocks, branching west on 19th Street a block or so and east on 18th Street to Jefferson and beyond. The Podmajersky family is said to own as many as 100 buildings on the east end of Pilsen; over the last four decades they've turned one after another into spacious rental quarters for artists, many of them opening to common gardens in the rear. It's an idyllic enclave, five minutes from the Loop, with rents that run from cheap to reasonable. Pod people, Morrison says, watch their mouths.
But Morrison is his own man. Last Saturday afternoon, midway through what used to be called the Pilsen East Artists' Open House, he mustered his forces. A ragtag band of 15 or 20 celebrants in fuzzy animal suits and sombreros marched down Podville's main artery to protest what they believe has become an exclusive and divisive event. In this, its 32nd year, the weekend studio walk emerged with a new name: the Chicago Arts District Artists' Open House, and artists in both west Pilsen and non-Pod east Pilsen were noticeably absent from the official map. Morrison says the annual event and the Chicago Arts District name (applied by a city study to Pilsen as a whole) have been co-opted to promote Podmajersky buildings and their tenants. Peering out from behind a cage attached to his glasses, booming through a bullhorn, "There's a lot more in Pilsen than what's on the map," Morrison took his case to the street. He handed visitors photocopies of his own, hastily compiled alternate guide listing ten additional stops, some of them as far west as Damen.
The Podmajersky family has been in Pilsen for three generations. John Podmajersky II grew up there when it was an eastern European neighborhood and later returned to buy dilapidated storefronts south and east of the area where the University of Illinois was building its new campus. By the 60s he was converting the old buildings to airy studio/loft spaces for artists and, in a stroke of genius, making gardens of some of the alleys behind them. Even Morrison says he's "actually sort of a fan of the old guy." Some of the tenants started the open house in 1970, and the Podmajerskys were supportive. For many years it was limited to a few blocks in their neighborhood, but more recently there were attempts to include other artists and galleries. Last year a shuttle bus that ran from Podville to the Mexican Fine Arts Center made it possible for visitors to see both the primarily Anglo artists in east Pilsen and their mostly Mexican counterparts to the west--not all of whom were thrilled by the tardy chance to participate.
This year, there was retrenchment. The Podmajerskys (John II and his wife, Annelies, have been joined by John III) dropped the $50 artist's fee for their tenants, appointed a staff member to manage the event (it had previously been volunteer-run), moved the deadline for registration up several months, and sent out a letter announcing that the open house needed to "scale down" in size while attempting to attract "a much wider group of qualified art buyers....People we want to attract are those who have the capacity to buy or to make offers of opportunities." Morrison says many non-Pods didn't receive this letter and were unaware of the early deadline; photographer Jeff Mickey, who works on 22nd, says the number of communal spaces that had been available in the past was scaled down too. Podmajersky tenants were limited to two guest artists per ground-floor studio.
"We'd love to be totally inclusive, but logistically it just doesn't work," says the event's coordinator, Heather Burkart, adding that this "was a transition year" in an effort to make the open house more manageable. The announcement letter went to Pod tenants and last year's list, she says. "We got an early start; we knew we'd miss some people, but two or three months prior would not have been enough time to do it well." According to Burkart, the open house is primarily but not exclusively for Pod tenants. "We had over 100 artists participating in 50 locations, including two alternative spaces," she says. "Ballpark, 15 to 20 percent of the artists were non-Pods." She wasn't able to put us in touch with any of them by press time.
For Just Pennies a Day...
Every day this October, Chicago civic, business and arts leaders can be found spending their lunch hour dining with a local artist, as part of a new initiative of Chicago Artists' Month called "Take An Artist To Lunch."--press release from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs
Take an artist to lunch and he'll want a grant. Give him a
grant and he'll look for a studio. Give him a studio and he'll
need a gallery. Give him a gallery and he'll ask for a commission. Give him a commission and he'll expect to be paid. Pay him and he'll want to be treated like a grown-up.
Take an artist to lunch.
Buy her a collar.
Tie her to a tree.
Scratch behind her ears.
Teach her to roll over.
Take an artist to lunch.
Write to a prisoner.
Visit a hospice.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.