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Local art in Chicago on your summer vacation

Updated on March 11, 2013

Summertime in Chicago!

As the weather warms up and the snow melts, you have the vacation bug again in your mind again. You've decided to travel to Chicago for a summer trip. Good choice! You may be an extra in a blockbuster movie such as Transformers, Batman, Superman, or the like. During the day, you can hit the beach, do marvelous shopping along the Magnificent Mile, experience world-class food and enjoy the parks and recreation (pun intended) that you couldn't sitting at home all winter.

Hotel TV: pass. Bar/pub: pass

What to do at night if you don't feel that the bar/club scene is not entirely your thing?

Might I suggest taking in some local art from the different scenes around the city?

Obviously, a first suggestion will be the Art Institute of Chicago, which is large and continuously changing. This would be a day or multi-day activity of art from centuries past.

However, if you are looking for the real underground stuff, living art culture, I suggest the following which I have visited and personally recommend.

Event I attended at Zhou B Art Centre

Zhou B Art Centre

Just outside of Chinatown in the Bridgeport neighbourhood is the Zhou B Art Centre at 1029 W 35th St. If you don't get mixed into a wedding, a fashion show, a fundraiser or a tech showcasing/launching going on, you can take your time to enjoy four floors of art at your leisure. It is a big warehouse type building with rooms/alcoves for each artist to display their work during visiting hours. There are green/environmental artists, lighting/mural artists, traditional painters, craft-style artists...basically something for everyone. Once, I was there for an exhibition and there were stations of high-end snacks and champagne across the floors in addition to the artists themselves giving guided tours of their work. The bottom floor has a Chinese motive complete with restaurant and bar, but the top three are open and feature each artist individually.

Paperish Mess Chicago art store event

Paperish Mess

You have to go here! Ok, maybe your life is your choice. But for locally made arts, crafts, stationary and homemade decorations, Paperish Mess store at 1955 W Chicago Ave is the place to go to buy local Chicago artistic character and supplies on the smaller side. Deep in the Ukrainian Village, you can walk down the street and buy Eastern European food and drink as well (if you can read the signs!) They hold acoustic concerts, movie screenings, art exhibitions, poetry readings, and the like but be warned that this is a small shop. You can buy Chicago neighbourhood or street specific signs, memorabilia, or just local creations in general. Bonus: such a warm staff!

Flat-Iron Building

Any mention of the Chicago music/art/fashion/media/hipster/etc scene must include a mention of the Wicker Park neighbourhood, especially the “Six Corners” intersection. Celebrities such as Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, John Cusack, CM Punk, and many more grew up here, although now it maybe is overly-gentrified and commercialized. However, the Flat-Iron building located at 1579 N Milwaukee Ave is still worth a visit for local art. It is a large, 3 floor building similar to the Zhou B Centre in which each artist/company/collective has a studio to make art, and each evening for several hours they open it up for public tours. Be warned that this is truly an artist-in-residence building, so it may not be “family-friendly” (possible cigarette/pot smoking, alcohol, garbage, artistic nudity, dogs, cats, recluses, etc) but the atmosphere and variety of art and new ideas (comic book, web/print design, painting, dance/performance, etc) is definitely worth it for the creative at heart. I really enjoy the Pop Chicago Art display here.

Art Exhibition at Black Cloud Gallery

Photo by Kathleen Noelle
Photo by Kathleen Noelle | Source

Black Cloud Gallery

In “Little Mexico” recently, aka the neighbourhood of Pilsen, there has been a resurgence in community pride and community art in recent times. On the east side of this neighbourhood, and along Halsted St traveling south from the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, you can see some great examples of various community murals (or “graffiti”). Along this path is the Black Cloud Gallery at 1909 S Halsted, which just features rotating exhibitions of art. I have attended several showings here and it usually displays high quality art to a cultured audience with food, drink, and live music provided, so it has proved to be a great night of culture and conversation. It is smaller than the other places listed here and more focused.

From street festival to gallery expo

What I enjoy about attending local art shows is that you can often buy it directly from the creator, so that you feel a sense of humanity. Often, exhibitions gather artists who may create and donate a percentage under a socially good cause such as anti-violence, community centre restoration, domestic abuse of women or human trafficking. I can hear and feel problems with poor or marginalized people individually or through visual/auditory art rather than mass-labeling races/demographics and then blaming all of them. Finally, I am inspired by the beauty and creativity people come up with outside of their day jobs, when their physical surroundings might not be as beautiful.

Street Art in Chicago

In conclusion...

There may be an entrance fee to each of these, or they may be holding private events on the day of your vacation. There may be open alcohol or unlabeled food, of which you may partake or not, so be aware. English is often spoken, but you will hear different languages spoken as well. This is just a beginner's guide to art in the Windy City, but it should suffice if you wish to spend a Friday or Saturday in Chicago taking in the scene. There does not seem to be any age or dress requirement for those mentioned here – maybe a future hub could be the high-end art shows in River North, West Loop, and Rodgers Park/Evanston.

If you spend your work days speaking to people, it can be fun to vacation in Chicago and just quietly walk around looking at the community murals and the art galleries listed here. If you spend your work days looking at the computer screen, it can be relaxing to get away from the TV afterwards and walk around checking out what's new in the scene and possibly talking to a few artists about their work or why they do it.

All of these locales are close to public transportation running late at night, with taxi service running as well. I have never had a problem walking either. However, none of them are in particularly affluent or tourist type areas (one might go so far as to consider them dangerous in the early A.M.), so be aware. Chicago occasionally has crime, but don't let it scare you away from enjoying some art from off the beaten path this summer. Pack your sandals, your sunglasses, and your hipster glasses this summer and take in some new art!

Photos not attributed were taken by and belong to the author.

To visit Chicago on business/fun, what is your modus operandi in the evening?

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