Artist-run spaces have proliferated in Chicago. Attribute it to frustrations with the economy, the art world or the simple expediency of getting things done without a budget, but with agility; they continue to thrive and evolve. CAR Editor JC Steinbrunner sat down with Sabina Ott to discuss her Oak Park, outdoor venue, Terrain Exhibitions—a 16-by-20-foot patch of yard that doubles as an invitational space addressing art and community within the everyday context of her neighborhood block.
I have a solitary artistic practice. When I make things, I am by myself in the studio—introspective and internal. However, I love putting exhibitions together and being able to exhibit friends and artists from all over the world, to make something interesting and poetic happen and create opportunities for others. I operated, with a group of friends, an alternative space when I was a graduate student in San Francisco, and I have curated about 15 exhibitions since. They have been in university galleries, alternative spaces and commercial galleries across the country. One year I curated two exhibitions in unrented storefronts in malls in Pasadena and Eagle Rock, CA.
I moved to Chicago six years ago and wanted to actively engage in the artistic community here. I also wanted to bring something very different to my neighborhood, Oak Park. I have moved at least every five years during my adult life, and I don’t want to move anymore. I plan on staying in the Chicago area; I want to make a fertile ground in which I can grow as a person and as an artist. I want to be part of my local culture. For a long time I wasn't sure what form my involvement would take. It took a while to figure out exactly what I could offer. Chicago is rich with artist-run spaces and community-based projects. I didn’t want to simply duplicate what was happening already.
I started Terrain in 2011. I had just built a studio in my back yard. Since I teach, my work time and space are valuable, so I didn't want to have a gallery in my studio. I have a collection of art in my home. I didn't want to take that down every month to have exhibits, or to have to tend to a more traditional gallery space. For a while I considered having a garden in the front yard as my art practice. I imagined that the neighborhood children would gladly work in the garden with me. I quickly realized that gardening projects were already abundant, that my front yard is small without much sun, that my neighbor’s children would probably rather be playing than working on a “farm,” and that I am a terrible gardener.
I got the idea for a front yard project space while hanging out with my students at Michelle Grabner and Brad Killiam’s Poor Farm, a Kunsthalle in rural Wisconsin. The Poor Farm Experiment, as it’s called, invites artists to do outdoor projects every August, among other events. I was invited to participate in 2010 and made a portable pond with a working waterfall out of Styrofoam and glitter that was both a sculpture, a seating area and a classic garden water element. Making that piece led my work in a new direction, and my new work has similarities with Terrain in that each piece is a hybrid of functional objects and art genres. I thought that I could offer a similar opportunity for expansion to others and became excited about inviting artists to produce outdoor projects that engaged the site of my front yard.
A front yard is defined by its boundaries and property lines but can be seen all day long, all year round. Because of the parameters of the space and the associations attached to a yard, artists have been able to play and create projects that they wouldn’t normally. The process of choosing artists is informal; I ask people I like or whom I want to get to know better and whose studio practice is flexible enough for them to be willing to play. I invite participants who have a spirit of generosity and encourage people to take aspects of yard art or of their experiences in the country, city or suburbs, and to make that the subject—to invert something that's usually found in a yard and transform it into something unfamiliar.
One of the first projects was by Stephanie Brooks, an artist who uses language and signage in her work. She made red yard signs that were similar to the political campaign yard signs you see everywhere, but were printed with an excerpt from Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, a declaration about love. It was magnificent to have that in the front yard next to my neighbor's pro-union and other political signs. Her work holds the honor of being the only project that inspired theft. Someone took a sign, which we replaced. The piece punctured expectations and replaced didactic messages with poetry. That's what I think people aim for when they make projects for Terrain and that's what I encourage the invited artists to do.
In January 2013, Jin Lee, a traditional photographer whose work often documents nature, collected and arranged used Christmas trees to make a forest in the front yard. This project was brilliant, elegant, simple and connected to her own photographs of trees that she has been producing for years. She made a beautiful “invitation to participate” card. We distributed them to houses within a five-block radius that had Christmas trees in their windows. Over 14 families dropped off their Christmas trees. This gave me the opportunity to invite those families to the opening party and increase the neighborhood’s investment in Terrain’s projects. We extended our request for trees on Facebook and so opened up the project citywide. Jin Lee created a book of tree photographs that she will give out during the reception and that is available for purchase online. Because it is a sculptural installation, Jin probably would never have instigated a piece like this were it not for Terrain. I'm very happy when that happens.
In another project, Joan Giroux made a sandbox for the front yard and provided toys for the local children to play with. A soundtrack of a text that her mother had written and other memories of childhood experiences played. Public readings on death and mourning were held throughout the run of the exhibition, creating a series of diverse experiences. After the show, the sandbox was donated to a neighbor’s front yard and is still accessible to the public.
Just as the art is specific to my yard, Terrain is specific to Oak Park, a “village” that is mostly filled with houses and yards. Oak Park, besides being the former home of Frank Lloyd Wright as well as McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, is racially diverse, small and multi-generational. There is an active walking culture here that was a huge factor in creating this kind of space. I am interested in accidental audiences: the kids who attend the elementary school across the street, the neighbors walking their dogs, the couple taking their evening exercise, the children playing after school. Other audiences for Terrain events consist of artists, the friends and family of the exhibitor, collectors, gallerists and curators. These people come to the opening party. Often people drive by looking for the projects, some read about the art on Facebook or Tumblr and seek it out. Neighbors bring neighbors, parents bring their kids.
The neighborhood location allows for an intimate engagement with the art. My experience of galleries has been that the more important they are, the more inhospitable and chilly their atmosphere is. There’s no place to sit and chat. Terrain is the absolute opposite. When you are inside at one of the opening parties, you are in my house. You are invited to eat and drink. I cook lots of really good food. I’ve gotten very good at cooking for large groups of people and I love it. The food, the event and the space itself are my offerings.
The aspect of hospitality has become a personally satisfying part of running Terrain. One can sit around and talk to people who may or may not know anything about the art. One can sit on the porch and look at the artwork from that angle, hang outside, do what ever one wants. If someone wants to talk to me and come into the house during the run of the show they can contact me, but the art is always visible from the street. No money changes hands at Terrain. Right now the artists produce their own projects. I’m not yet sure if I will apply for grants. I like the independence the artists and I have with the space operating as it is, but I am sure that the artists would like support for the production of their projects.
Terrain also lives on Facebook and Tumblr. I consider these online spaces as another kind of front yard. The work is represented by photographs that I take on my phone and upload as if Terrain were any tourist destination. People post about the works, adding an interactive dimension to the project. The online presence historicizes Terrain and gives it an overall shape, extending the duration of the projects. When you are physically in a Terrain installation, eating, talking, viewing, of course, one is aware that the experience and the artwork is temporal. Online, you can see the project all of the time and in context to all the other projects. In that way, Terrain itself becomes understood as important as the individual artworks, Terrain itself is a work that expands and contracts over time. Terrain is not intended as an engagement with relational aesthetics. I don’t view it as my art. I understand it as a shifting entity formed by multiple events that the artists set in motion.
In 2012 Terrain participated in the MDW Fair in Chicago, a fair that focuses on artist-run spaces. I showed documentation of all the Terrain projects—the preparatory drawings the artists made, artifacts from their pieces and photos of the installations. The overall effect was that of a trade show display or a real estate office. Handouts that described each piece were available. In 2013, Terrain will host a biennial. Many of my neighbors have agreed to let artists use their yards for the month of September, so we will have many artworks in many yards at the same time. Oak Parkers love block parties, so the reception will be an open block party with performances, food and music. We might even have fireworks.
Sabina Ott has participated in over 100 solo and group exhibitions. Her paintings and prints are in museum collections nation-wide while her installation work has been included in international exhibitions such as the first Auckland Triennial in Auckland New Zealand, the Australian Contemporary Arts Center in Melbourne, Australia as well as the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri and the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, Cleveland Ohio.
She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artists Grant and a Howard Foundation Grant from Brown University, Her work is in the collection of the Corcoran Museum of American Art, Washington DC; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York; The Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri; the University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley, California, and the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport, California among others. She is Professor of Art at Columbia College Chicago, Chicago, IL.
An interview draft of this article was originally told to JC Steinbrunner for publication on The Art Section.
Megan T. Noe / illustration: Anna Kunz