It was only after the third month of volunteering at an after-school photography class that I had my “Aha!” art moment. I was helping teens curate a show of their self-portraits into a local art space in gritty downtown Springfield, MA. Witnessing the build of excitement triggered by self-expression, creative feedback and the pending debut of the work, I realized I wanted to be this giddy more often. It took me two years to save up enough to leave my newspaper job and start down a more creative path. While being a photojournalist was never dull, not every story left you with a good feeling. While covering world-changing events, professional sports and photographing notables was exciting, the ambulance-chasing and crime coverage never felt right to me. Getting back to being creative and having the time to develop a project seemed infinitely more appealing to me than constantly chasing stories and living under never-ending deadlines.
The plan was simple- leave Massachusetts after eight years in newspapers and move to Chicago. I had visited the city countless times after moving to the Midwest from The Netherlands at age seven. The museums, public sculptures and endless independent galleries gave the place a feeling of artistic potential. I didn’t know it at the time but Chicago has the third largest creative economy in the U.S., sporting 150,000 jobs in that sector alone.
The reality of changing location and career caught me off guard. It felt like I’d dropped dead in the water. No connections, no portfolio, no clue where to start. After floundering in more than a few months of self-doubt I decided to put my "fate" aside and get down to the basics. I pushed past my fears, followed my gut and set out to surrounded myself with artists to see if that rubbed off.
I managed to get a shift as an assistant at Las Manos Gallery, a scrappy 18-year old Andersonville business that has abundant character and carries work by emerging and professional artists. It was an unassuming gallery in an approachable city, a great spot to start. I decided that this meant taking in every aspect of the gallery. I would mop, ring up sales, help with taxes and serve glasses of wine to long-time patrons of the gallery. I helped install artwork into lofts and condos, lugging heavy pieces up stairwells and in cargo elevators. It helped me get a handle on what it takes to run a creative business in a recession, and let me tell you, it is not for the faint-of-heart.
After a few months of doing the basics I decided to delve a little deeper into my surroundings. I started a Las Manos Gallery blog, Facebook and Twitter pages. I felt that the business needed to be able to build connections online, creating a community of artists and supporters outside the physical space. I watched the newspaper industry tank because of their inability to embrace in internet, and I didn’t want that to happen to a place I loved. Thankfully my photojournalism skills kicked back in, letting me gather ample content for our online presence. I started producing short videos of gallery artists and exhibitions. I created press releases for upcoming shows along with oversights of the pieces on display. I documented work and interacted with artists, large corporations and individual clients. After three years of getting to know things top-to-bottom, I became the Las Manos Gallery Media Director and I also help curate shows.
Having the ability to make creative content has led to more than a few good connections. Artists often need their work documented and assistance with media and technology. I am always open to helping a fellow artist in exchange for a piece of artwork or just a simple thank-you. Surprisingly this is what has opened the most doors for me. I’ve been asked to be part of projects including filming and photography on the set of a new documentary about the Lakota language, photographs in the permanent collection in DePaul’s Arts and Letters Hall, and curating collections of artwork for non-profit fundraisers. It made me realize there is a strong arts undercurrent in this city, and it engulfs folks that are open to helping other artists and organizations.
Besides assisting artists, the other aspect that has helped me flourish in my own work is just being around people that love what they do. The owner of the gallery, Michelle Peterson-Albandoz, along with Chicago artists Joe Boudreau, Tricia Rumbolz, Michael McGuire, and Chuck Meyers continue to dazzle me with their vision and discipline. There really are working artists out there that insist on creating something beautiful and thought-provoking every day, despite the hard economic realities. Witnessing their drive and their ability to cross successfully into multiple mediums has inspired me to do the same. My photography bug is always on, which means I carry with me a Holga, a cheap plastic camera filled with medium-format film. Now that I’m not rushed to take hundreds of images within a few minutes time, I lazily compose shots and usually create only one exposure at a time. The film sits around in my cameras for more than a few months until I get them developed. This adds to the lack of urgency that makes the images much more interesting. I’ve also taken these images to another level by manipulating them in Photoshop and in video editing software. The results are eerie photographs that trap subjects within its digital borders.
Along with showing and selling photographs at Las Manos Gallery and online, I also plunged back into ceramics- my favorite but unrealized subject in art school. This past year has been filled with time at the incredible Lincoln Square Pottery Studio, creating sculpture based on architecture and design I grew up admiring around Europe. The Bauhaus style particularly captured my interest, the clean lines and function of those buildings has subconsciously popped up in everything I do. The work of Dutch architect Geritt Rietveld also plays a part in my work as well.
Between the artist communities at the gallery and ceramics studio I finally feel like I have the support, feedback and opportunities I hoped for back in my old life. I find that you really can’t do it alone, and that the best part of the journey has been meeting others on the same path.
Mieke Zuiderweg is a Chicago-based artist originally from The Netherlands. She has a BFA from Michigan State University. She works in photography, film, ceramics and multi-media. Her work can be seen at http://miekez.blogspot.com