For some, art is a hands-on experience

  • Medill News Service
  • May 21, 2007 @ 8:33 AM
Chicago is undeniably a sports city, a theater city and a food city. In recent years, with the expansion of the gallery scene in the West Loop and Wicker Park, it's become an ever-bigger visual art city, too.

But just as Chicagoans aren't content to sit back and simply gaze at a deep dish pizza, we aren't satisfied playing spectator to the visual arts, either.

There are countless opportunities for Chicagoans of all ages and abilities to try their hand at making art themselves. And they have have taken advantage of them. Increasing numbers of people from around the city have sought out the city's studios to experience art-making for themselves, from ceramics to painting to glassblowing. 

Ceramics is perhaps the most popular with Chicagoans. It's a fun way to get messy and creative simultaneously, and leave with pieces like mugs and bowls that can actually be used. And while there are countless studios and art centers in the area, serious ceramicists know that Chicago's Lillstreet Art Center is the destination for clay workers of all levels.  

One of the city's oldest hands-on visual art studios, Lillstreet Art Center, which opened in 1975, moved from Lill Street in Lincoln Park to Ravenswood near Montrose on the North Side in 2003. Demand for its arts classes had increased to a point where its original, single-floor, non-air-conditioned building just didn't cut it. The new location is three times larger, and every inch is put to use in the 180 courses Lillstreet now offers.

Known primarily for its ceramics classes, Lillstreet also offers courses in jewelry making, printmaking, painting and drawing and textiles, which was added after the move. Most courses are capped at 12 to 15 students and are geared toward novices, but courses in each area are available at assorted levels for adults as well as children.

"We have a really good mix of people here," said Lillstreet's director Mia Capodilupo, "people that have been to art school, people who have never tried any art before but are looking to learn, and lots of kids, too."

Along with Lillstreet's popularity has come a surprisingly large number of art novices-turned-professionals. In fact, Lillstreet has studio space specifically for individuals who have learned and perfected their craft in its courses and want to continue working on their own. Tony Pasin, an architect-turned-potter, is a typical Lillstreet success story.

"I first thought, 'No, I can't go to Lillstreet, you have to be really good to go there,'" said Pasin, who now teaches courses at the studio. "But I'm so happy I decided to go. It's been a huge, huge blessing in my life-I love Lillstreet." 

Wicker Park's Caro D'Offay Gallery has a reputation for exhibiting experimental, contemporary work. But D'Offay, its namesake founder, also hoped that artistic creation would "take place within the confines of the gallery itself.''

To that end, the 1 ½-year-old gallery has offered classes for more than a year in such subjects as photography, printmaking and portfolio building. While most of the work on exhibit is produced by professional artists with established reputations, the gallery's classes are meant for Chicagoans of varied experience.

"We hope for a range in our classes," said Caro D'Offay's publicist Allison Glenn. "Kids in college, artists who have been practicing for years, artists looking to get back into it."

The summer's class schedule will be announced in a few weeks on the gallery's Web site, though Glenn confirmed Caro D'Offay will offer a course in Lumetype printmaking, a method created and patented by D'Offay. Using ink and light-emitting paint to mimic the look of early experimental photography, it is taught exclusively at the gallery.

All classes are taught by practicing artists, and, unlike some arts studios, no membership fee is required. 

Glassblowing isn't for the faint of heart. Or those likely to faint from heat. But it's also one of the most exciting, adrenalin-producing arts to make. And Chicago's only glassblowing studio, Chicago Hot Glass on the Far Northwest Side, has given local residents a chance to learn this thrilling trade since 2001.

"A lot of people who come here have seen glassblowing before, either on television or in various news articles," said co-owner Jeremy Scidmore. "They see that you can actually do this. I think something about the heat and fire really draws people to this kind of work."

CHG offers about 10 glassblowing classes for all experience levels, and all are capped at a maximum of six students. From introductory courses to bead making and glass fusion, the studio generally hosts about 40 students a week. But due to the extreme nature of the art, most classes are limited to those 18 and over.

Glassblowing isn't for everyone; it requires standing near extremely hot flames and constantly turning weighty glass until the process is complete. It can be dangerous--glassblowers have been known to scorch arm hair or lose eyebrows. Even so, Scidmore said CHG has only become more popular in recent years. Most Chicagoans who come to CHG discover it through Internet searches, he said, and many are looking for a more intense experience than they can find at other studios. They also unearth a community of people engaged in a cutting-edge art.

"When I first came into the studio, I smelled the burning, wet newspaper and the wax burning and the smell of the studio-I just knew I was home," Scidmore said. "It's a great community of people, and glassworkers are really an interesting people." 

For anyone searching for a slightly tamer introduction to the visual arts, studios that offer pre-made ceramic vessels for painting are a great way to get involved. 

Glazed Expressions is the biggest name on the Chicago pottery-painting scene. The 10-year-old, paint-your-own-pottery studio, which began as a single storefront space in Lakeview, has expanded to five locations in the city and suburbs. Each still maintains founder Katie Usedom's original goal of creating a down-to-earth atmosphere where anyone can come to try their hand at decorating pottery.

Glazed Expressions provides "everything you need to become artistic," said Mara Link, who manages the Lincoln Park location. That includes paints, stencils and stamps and myriad pieces of pottery on which to try them. For a small studio fee, the staff glazes and fires completed work, and in a week's time, returns finished, functional pieces.

Like most of the city's open-to-the-public studios, Glazed Expressions has only gotten more popular in recent years.

"When this industry first began, it was like it was held in 'grandma's basement,'" Link said. "These days we host hundreds of birthday parties, hundreds of adult events and hundreds of off-site events at locations across the area."

While art classes can seem intimidating to beginners, Glazed Expressions considers itself ripe for Chicagoans of all ages and all artistic abilities-or lack thereof.

"In general, we don't get a lot of people who consider themselves artistic here," Link said. "But we do get a lot of people who want to have fun with their kids, or who just want to try out painting."

Although, Link added, acclaimed Chicago artist Don Cooley has been known to frequent the Lakeview studio, where he paints intricately on six-inch tiles.
For more information:

Lillstreet Art Center
4401 N. Ravenswood
Be sure to check out Lillstreet's Ceramic Tiles class, which teaches students of all levels how to create functional and decorative tiles you can use at home.

Caro D'Offay Gallery
2204 W. North Ave
Look into Caro D'Offay's courses in Lumetype printmaking. The gallery has patented this process, and you can't learn it anywhere else.

Chicago Hot Glass
1250 N. Central Park Ave.

A great way to get a taste of glassblowing is CHG's Experience Glassblowing class. Glassblowing novices work one-on-one with a CHG resident artist for 30 minutes..

Glazed Expressions
Five area locations

For the weekend artist with limited time, Glazed Expressions is a great way to create one-of-a-kind, functional pieces-anything from piggy banks to mugs to serving platters.