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Spoke Exit Interview: Part I

Kristin Mariani. A Sample of Making, 2009. Spoke, Chicago, IL. (Photo courtesy of Spoke)

Spoke, a mixed project and studio space in the West Loop closed its doors in August after hosting over forty artist projects, events, experiments, and residencies in its nearly three years of programming. What always struck me about Spoke was how public its programming was. Once while wandering around their building at 119 N. Peoria, I knocked on their door and was soon let into the middle of an artist’s project under construction. I assumed I was interrupting, but the artists chatted with me, explaining their project, and inviting me to stay if I had time. Visiting a later opening, I was taken back by the SAIC cheerleaders, mini-marching band, fake sports mascots, and kooky drum major who had crammed into Spoke’s small project space to accompany “Game On”, their interactive opening full of nonsensical artist-made games. Through art parades, beer making projects, international collaborations, and more, Spoke’s programming proved to be unique, surprising, and full of variety.

To commemorate the success of the their endeavor, two of Spoke’s four co-founders, Rachel Moore and Rana Siegel, reflect below on their memories associated with the unique art space. This is the first part of a two-part interview. Next week will feature co-founders Monica Herrera and Heather Mullins, Spoke’s other co-founders.

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): What originally inspired you to found Spoke?

Spoke: We exited graduate school fueled with the energy and passion to work together and keep our cooperative practices alive while reserving space for our own work. Once we began exploring studio spaces where the four of us could work in an open environment, we started seeing the potential for something more public, more collaborative – something that wasn’t offered. Then Shannon Stratton of Three Walls offered us a space above them on Peoria with the stipulation of maintaining a public component. It was a perfect opportunity for what we wanted at that time.

ZJ: Could you briefly explain Spoke’s mission?

Spoke: Spoke served as an opportunity for us to form a multifunctional space that combined group studio practices with an experimental project space in a shared environment. Our mission was to create opportunities for creative use and interaction promoting resourcefulness, spontaneity, and experimentation in a space that was accessible and open to all types of people and creative work. Our mission as Founders/Creative Directors was to be open to change in what we exhibited and hosted in our Projects Space and studio space. We did not want to be stuck being one thing.  The front project, for example, served as a laboratory, test-site, classroom, studio, experimental gallery, stage, brewery, and living room. We were also interested in creating a space where projects could be shown during the process of making them — without the expectations that they had to be refined or finished for the public. A lot of people took part in Spoke, and we wanted to be able to be influenced by everyone’s ideas and creativity. That all helped to shape what Spoke became, which reflected the original concept behind the name: something that revolved around collaboration and participation and could only function when we were in sync, like the spokes of a wheel. Simultaneously the name reflected our interest in conversation and dialogue.

ZJ: How did you feel the city of Chicago affected or influenced Spoke?

Spoke: Chicago is amazing in that the people support apartment galleries, and other alternative spaces, alongside practices that are not conducive to commercial galleries. There is a feeling that we can do anything and have support, and that makes it exciting and encouraging.

It feels like a city of acceptance (in the arts). There is allowance and encouragement for what we were trying to do – something new. We wanted to create what wasn’t there. What we wanted was a place where we could openly share ideas, tools, and space, while simultaneously creating a public space with a similar set of requirements. The public space was inspired by both the casual and non-commercial spirit of some of the start-up apartment galleries coupled with an interest in working directly with the general non-art public.

Rachel Moore. (image courtesy of Spoke)

Rachel Moore

ZJ:  What was something that surprised you during your time at Spoke?

Rachel Moore (RM): There was so much time spent on running Spoke, thinking of ideas, projects, and talking to different community members and artists, that it became part of my practice. I thought I was getting away from my studio practice because I wasn’t drawing or sculpting, when in fact Spoke had become my practice.

ZJ: Were there any residencies that stood out to you?

RM: Anne Wilson’s project stood out on a personal level because it followed a collaborative project of my own involving similar concepts — multiple people working together with fiber. While some large components were similar, the projects were so aesthetically and conceptually different. Ours (E Pluribus Unum with Kim Jackson DeBord) involved the non-art community, the homeless, quilting, and education. Anne’s involved mainly the art community, and the action itself was focused on being an art piece. It was such a gorgeous thing to watch and see how she set it up, completely transformed from when we were in the space. The whole process became a work of art.

ZJ: What do you feel you learned through your experience at Spoke?

RM: There is an amazing amount of work that goes into running a space like this. We had an aggressive public program the first year, with exhibitions, residencies, and workshops. It was harder than we thought to divide the time and all make decisions together. Eventually, when Monica and I moved, Rana and Heather fell into a rhythm and understanding, dividing responsibilities up in a way that made more sense. But initially we thought we could do this as a side project, when really this undertaking was larger than that. It taught us all so much, from forming public programming, working collaboratively, delegating responsibility — but more than any of the administrative details or strategic planning, I learned how important this type of space was and what it offered is to me and to the public.

ZJ: What’s next for you?

RM: Currently I’m working as an assistant director at Helen Day Art Center in Stowe, VT and maintaining an art practice that includes collaboration. I’m also a trustee at River Arts Center, also in Vermont, which is an art center that works very closely with its community, serving it through various art forms (not just visual).

ZJ: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RM: We are incredibly thankful for all of the support and encouragement throughout these past few years. Each person that’s been a part of Spoke, whether an audience member, a participant, or a neighbor, has affected us deeply in such a positive way.

Rana Siegel. (image courtesy of Spoke)

Rana Siegel

ZJ: What was something that surprised you during your time at Spoke?

Rana Siegel (RS): How malleable everything was – our space was reconstructed and reconfigured several times to accommodate the needs of the studio artists and exhibiting artists. As was our mission and administration, as we learned more and revised and adjusted them to suit our interests.  I was also fascinated by how the group studio and project space intersected and played off each other. We managed  both at the same time with so many people.

ZJ. Were there any residencies/projects that stood out to you?

RS: Honestly, there was something unique and special about them all. One I especially liked Exquisite Corpse. That was the project that all the studio mates, at that time, collaborated in. Even though we all worked in an intimate environment, we didn’t always get a chance to learn about each other’s practices. This project gave us the opportunity to become familiar and learn more about the dynamics of collective work practices.

ZJ:  What do you feel you learned through your experience at Spoke?

RS: I learned how to work with people. I had never collaborated with anyone before. Working with others taught me when to let go and let things play out, as well as how to stay open and sensitive to everyone’s perspectives and ideas. I learned a lot about my control issues and my strengths. I learned what it takes to co-administer a group studio and project space. In the beginning, the four of us rotated every responsibility we could think of. This gave all of us a chance to learn the various sides and aspects of Spoke. That helped me gain insight on where my interests lie.

ZJ: What’s next for you?

RS: For income, I am working full time as an admin director at SAIC.  Artistically, I moved into a studio in the Garfield park area. I missed the community at Spoke, but this building is filled with artists, and I am very excited to see how I can connect with everyone. Spoke was so many things, and after giving myself a moment or two, I would like to recap and see how I can use that experience for the future. For now, I am so excited to focus on art making in a space that is solely used as a studio.

ZJ: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RS: It was such an experience to be apart of Spoke, right after grad school, starting it with 3 great friends, and sharing it with such great artists. This was something very different for me and very challenging. I learned a great deal of things. I saw this experience, Spoke, like a material – the more you keep on playing/manipulating with it, the more you begin to learn about what it is and what it can do. That’s my Spoke motto. I loved our casual yet professional nature. The exhibiting artists were like studio mates- we welcomed them into our community.  I think we were quite unique having a studio space merge into a rotating project space. In the beginning, we started working off of other models, but I loved when things transitioned and we started to do things “our way”. I feel like we took risks, not too worried what other people thought. We wanted to help people out, give them an opportunity to think out their projects, try something new in our space. I am proud of what we did and what we accomplished over these three years.

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1 Response to " Spoke Exit Interview: Part I "

  1. […] To commemorate the success of the their endeavor, two of Spoke’s four co-founders, Monica Herrera and Heather Mullins, reflect below on their memories associated with the unique art space. This is the second part of a two-part interview. To view the interview with Rachel Moore and Rana Siegel, Spoke’s other co-founders, click here. […]

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