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The Logan Square Comfort Station: In the 'Art' of a Community

Last fall, as the end of sweater weather drew near, three local artists took advantage of the final surge of Logan Square outdoor market goers to breathe new life into a neighborhood landmark.  If you live or work in the area, you’ve probably passed by it a hundred times, that little Tudor-style building across from the Logan monument.  For years the building dubbed the “Comfort Station” sat empty and untouched, slowly deteriorating.  It was not forgotten, however, and this past fall the City of Chicago leased the turn-of-the-century building, newly restored, to Logan Square Preservation, the volunteer organization responsible for the National Historic District and City Landmark District designations of Logan Square and its boulevards.  This change of hands marked a new era for the Comfort Station that once served as a refuge for streetcar commuters along Milwaukee Avenue. 

Within two weeks of the acquisition, Logan Square homeowner, preservation member and artist, David Keel, initiated and executed the Comfort Station’s inaugural gallery exhibition in collaboration with Chicago artists Josh Crow and Terry Swafford.

“It’s something that had to happen incredibly fast,” Keel explained. “We thought it was a good idea to do something more traditional for the first show.”

“We were considering future possibilities for shows in this space,” Swafford said,“what is possible.”  Crow added, “We just thought that people don’t know what [The Comfort Station] is and, so, how can we do this and sort of build off of it?”

So, working from a photograph taken at night, each artist took on the challenge of creating work within the context of a singular image while maintaining their unique approach despite the limitations of the subject matter.  Swafford recalled, “It came up, should we be checking in with each other to compare notes and the direction and, I think, David and Josh both thought it’s better if we work on our own and see what happens, so it’s all by chance.  And, hopefully, by nature of similarities and the same tastes it will just be cohesive.”

Swafford, who knows Keel from the Chicago art collaborative, Infidel Group, continued on to describe how the concept materialized. “David just brought the idea up to us [for the show] two weeks ago and he said, ‘I’ve kind of been sitting on this, what do you think?’ and we were, like, ‘we’re in!’” … “The original idea was to make it about the station and then we thought, well, can we really make a lot of work about that?  You know, we had some doubts and kind of ran through and said, ‘let’s just try it anyway and just see what happens.’  We thought, actually, the limitations of us doing the same image all over would be either nauseating or fascinating.”

And while the paintings, still half-hung, may have originated from a solitary, static photograph unaware of its surroundings, the unique images that resulted were far from nauseating.  Between them, function and form hinted at both the past and aspirations for the future.  Keel’s ghostly landscapes reached out with a quiet energy like the city under a blanket of snow; Crow’s earthy, subdued palette and thick impasto spoke to the weight of the building’s presence, its deeply rooted history and adaptive renewal; Swafford’s blocks of vibrant, contrasting color, and broad, energetic brushstrokes seemed to celebrate its vigorous rebirth at the heart of Logan Square’s creative community.  If this is what these guys can do in two weeks, we’re eager to see what they will bring to the table with a little more time and a little more inspiration.

SIFC caught up with the artists the night before the October 23rd opening of the aptly titled “Art Show Logan Square.” Below you’ll find interviews with David Keel, Josh Crow, and Terry Swafford.

Comfort Station

"Art Show", Comfort Station, Logan Square, Oct. 23, 2010, Nicolette Caldwell

The Artists

David Keel

Andrea Sparr-Jaswa: Talk a little about your work outside of this project, if you would.

David Keel:  I’m usually doing more paintings with figures in them and the second it starts to feel like something I’ve seen before, I’ll try to stray away from that as far as I can.  Which is hard, you really don’t get feedback for that type of stuff.  You usually get feedback if you stay doing the same traditional kind of stuff people have seen before because it’s what they can relate to.

ASJ: What excites and motivates you to create?

DK:  What excites me is something I haven’t necessarily created, something I didn’t foresee happening.  Like, in darkrooms, when you go in and put your paper into the chemicals and then you have that moment where you see what something looks like.  Those moments are what I’m trying to get at.  I surprise myself or else I get bored.

ASJ:  How do you think your experience of living in Logan Square translated itself into the Comfort Station pieces, if at all?  Despite the singular content, did you find yourself going in a particular direction that you didn’t expect?

DK:  The way that I went that I wasn’t anticipating was just that the paintings, to me, ended up looking kind of old, like they were kind of worn out, in what I was hoping was a good way.  So, I imagine, from walking past the place that that kind of adds some sort of influence.  You never know how that kind of stuff gets into your psyche or whatever.  It’s hard to kind of pinpoint that.  I don’t even try to figure it out anymore.

ASJ:  How do you feel this exhibition will be received?

DK:  I’ve learned over time to not have any sort of expectations.  I think that paintings offer a good regulating device for people.  I just think we’re totally bombarded with so much information and so many things to think about that I feel like if you can look at a painting and actually feel something it’s a good thing to grasp on to.

ASJ:  What are you planning next?  Has this project affected what you may be working on now or your inspiration for future work?

DK:  I actually considered starting to work where I have a laid out subject.  I do kind of like working that way.  Usually I work where the subject comes into fruition later.  But, you know, we’ll see, I might get bored with that.  Hopefully we’ll be able to have some more shows.  It’s just a matter of making them happen.  I have a lot of ideas and people who I think would be interested.

Josh Crow

ASJ:  Your work can been described as having an interest in the relationship between humans and the natural environment and how our concept of nature is shaped by our personal, contemporary experience.  Having grown up in the country, did you become more keenly aware of this relationship between person and place once you moved away from home?

JC:  Definitely.  When I went off to school [Rhode Island School of Design], learning how to live in the city and then going back, you see the contrast.  And, I guess that’s where that grew out of, the different kind of spaces.  Going to the city and then going back to the country I’m able to take whatever experience from the city and superimpose it on the country and, it’s like, the country is so beautiful but then there’s this huge disconnect between people out there.  In the city, it’s like, you’re forced to interact with people whether you like it or not.

ASJ:  How do you feel your work for The Comfort Station exhibition channels past processes or results?

JC: [The image] was taken at night and that’s one of the times of day that I really like to paint when I do landscape or cityscape because I like how the lights sort of add a certain amount of theatrics.  I feel like there’s more excitement there, in terms of contrast, than a normal daytime scene.  And so, you know, that’s something I’ve dealt with a lot in the past on my own.  Right from the start it felt not too far away from what I might have picked myself.  It was strange when I was painting, the shot [David] got, you couldn’t see all these buildings behind it really.  If I did it again I would want to try to pick up more of that because it definitely felt like this could be a home in the woods or in the country somewhere.  And so, it wasn’t lining up with what I would want it to lock in to; the whole theme of it being about Logan Square or the neighborhood.  It seemed removed … there are other things that I’d want to bring in but didn’t.  It seemed so straightforward, kind of an experiment.

ASJ:  What changes do you hope this project will bring about in regards to Logan Square’s burgeoning influence on the local art scene?

JC:  I have good hopes for it.  I’ve wanted to get more involved but I haven’t and I think something like this is exactly what is needed, especially with what [SIFC] is doing.  It’s going to be two-fold, I think, the artists being able to communicate more easily, that’s what is difficult once you get out of school, not having that community to bounce off of.  [The Comfort Station] is so central for the community that hopefully next year, once we get going, it’ll be hard to avoid it.

ASJ:  What are you up to right now?  Has this project inspired you at all?

JC: I haven’t been painting that much lately and I’m trying to get back into it and realized [this show] is a good way to do it. I knew I wanted to mix it up, paint differently on each [piece] and so it was a progression.  I actually expected getting kind of bored but I just pushed through that and I ended up with three different pieces that are all different than I expected… I actually kind of want to do stuff in the neighborhood.  I used to do these plein air, nighttime paintings and I had a little flashlight on my head and a little pochade box and I’d sit on the sidewalk and just paint buildings.  When I first started painting it was all outside and I gradually moved away from that and now I prefer to work in the studio.  I enjoy [it] more because I like to have action in my painting; I like when my brushwork starts moving around a lot.  It’s more luxurious in terms of time; you can play with things and be more dynamic.

Terry Swafford

ASJ:  Tell me a little more about your work outside of this event.  Yours are the more vibrant colors?  In what ways did your processes and interests come through in this very static, singular subject matter?

TS: That’s a good question because, I mean, it was one of those things where it was an experiment – what can we produce in this time and how will it turn out?   The first [piece] I did was very, sort of, straightforward.  They progressively went … I guess the contrast is higher in mine.  The third one was probably the most vibrant color.  So, I think there was a progression towards that away from the image and just working [with] pure color.  That’s basically how I work.  I do things from light, which is not to say that I’m a plein air artist or anything like that, just that the opportunity to improvise on site, given conditions you’re up against and so forth, you’re in a place and you sort of have to knock [it] out.  It’s like the limitations and boundaries that I was talking about with this show and, within that, you don’t have time to sort of do it again, you have to get it nailed to be spontaneous.  So, it brings about a different type of energy than what I can create in the studio.  It’s not even contentbased, ever.  It’s an arrangement of things, always.  Like, for instance, if certain things go together it’s always based on color.  I’ll just zero in on that.  It might be a detail of a corner of someone’s parking lot.  I’m not here to make paintings about this or whatever, I’m just making small arrangements.  It’s really just surface, its color interactions and so forth.  It’s always representational, it’s done from observation in someway but it’s really abstract painting just applied, if you will.  It’s about chasing inspiration.

ASJ:  And were you inspired by the idea of working with this building aesthetically?

TS:  No, not at all.  When [David] brought up the idea of doing the station, I was like, “Oh, cause I don’t make portraits of buildings, ever.  It’s always something else that triggers it.  I don’t make paintings of decay but I’m kind of drawn to areas that are a bit blighted because they get painted over, they get covered in graffiti.  Whatever happens, you get a bit of a juxtaposition of time and use and misuse.  It creates a bit of a story; how things grow over it.  It’s chasing nature and what it does and it’s a bit fascinating.  But was I inspired by this?  No.  Actually, I was going about it the long way.  I was going to take some time, explore on foot until something just sort of sparked.  But, no, there was no spark of inspiration.  Inspiration came though the process of doing it.  The first piece, I would say, is uninspired.  But, I let it stand, because I had to go though it to find something that I liked.  I really didn’t think I had anything to say about it at all that’s why I was really surprised that maybe I do.

ASJ:  Has this project inspired your current or future work at all?

TS:  Actually, the stuff that I did I kind of like.  I was wondering how much it was going to look like other work I was doing by the time I was through with it, just because the approach is very different.  I’ve never done the same thing more than once.  Usually, I’m done with it and I move on with the next thing so I thought it would never hold my interest at the beginning.  I was happily surprised.  I want to do more, actually, because I still don’t think I got to where I feel like I could go with it.  It was an interesting challenge.  It was making me work differently.

ASJ:  Do you have any expectations or hopes in regards to the reception of this inaugural event?

TS:  I don’t know.  I always go in to things kind of like going in to this, “Let’s jump in and see what it is. I just hope they leave the baggage at the door and just go into it with an open mind.  And it would be nice if we could create some interest and get people tuned in for things to come.  That would be the best thing.  There are so many people who are making work; there are so many artists in this town.  You put on art shows and it just happened, nobody knows.  It’s not like the theatre where you put on a show and it gets reviewed.  Everyone wants an audience, everyone wants to be noticed – Pay attention! There’s something going on here.

The Comfort Station exhibition ran the last two weekends in October, coinciding with the final days of the Logan Square outdoor market.  As interest in the space grew, other events followed, including a Christmas play in early December written and directed by members of the Open Source Theatre Project and, just this past Saturday, “The Valentine’s Day Art Show Confessional” curated by David Keel, Josh Crow and Jessie Devereaux. For more information on upcoming events, bookmark SIFC, or you can follow Comfort Station Logan Square on Facebook.  If you have photos to share or wish to submit a project proposal, please contact the Comfort Station at comfortstationprojects@gmail.com.