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Spoke Exit Interview: Part II

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, 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.

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.

Monica Herrera (image courtesy of Spoke)

Monica Herrera

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

MH: Working with three great friends was something I thought would be easy, and even though it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, it was surprising how much work it sometimes took to make things work. Also, I guess I wasn’t expecting the amazing responses that artists, the art community, and the public in general had about our space: serious but flexible, professional but experimental, interesting but fun.

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

MH: I think each one of them had a very bold and particular proposal. I remember each and every one of them; I can’t really choose one or two. I think some worked better in the space and maybe engaged the public better, but I also think all of them took risks, which was kind of the purpose. Each of the residents used the space as a canvas where they could show or do something that in other spaces wouldn’t probably be taken “seriously”, or would hardly be even accepted. The residencies worked wonders in that regard.

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

MH: First of all, I learned how much time and effort it takes to create and maintain a creative venue. The amount of imponderables, of discussions, of thinking and rethinking stuff… Now I have a whole new appreciation for it because I know what it takes and how demanding it is. Second, I learned how to work collectively: we had to make thousands of decisions, each one of us had their own ideas and perspectives, but we had to negotiate through all the disagreements. Sometimes it was tiring, but in the end it was always worth it. It was quite a challenge but it was very rewarding. Now, if I had the opportunity to launch another space like Spoke, I think I would have a better understanding of the process it involves. We were all very enthusiastic and, as Rachel mentioned, we all had to manage a lot of tasks. It was not only the logistics, but also the definition and redefinition of the project as it developed. It was a formidable learning experience.

ZJ: What’s next for you?

MH: I moved back to my hometown, Mexico City, about a year ago. It takes time to reconnect with a place. When I feel more connected here I think I’m going to try to start another project kind of like Spoke. I think it is necessary. Especially in a city where there are not that many options for artists to experiment with their work in a noncommercial fashion. Where if you are not in the mainstream, so to speak, you simply don’t exist. In my personal work as an artist, I kept trying to experiment and develop new work. I have had good opportunities here and there.

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

MH: I just want to thank all of the people that were with us during our time in Spoke, they were the ones that, in the last instance, made it all work and worth it. Also, of course, I would like to say that working with Heather, Rana and Rachel was one of the best experiences I have ever had as an artist. I learned a lot, a hell of a lot, from them.

Heather Mullins (image courtesy of Spoke)

Heather Mullins

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

HM: It surprised me how hard it was to keep the balance of running a space, working freelance or full-time and maintaining a consistent studio practice.  I guess I’ve always been one to manage a big load of work, but it was very challenging.  I also did a lot of the physical maintenance on the space and because that is very closely related to my own studio practice, determining that line between what was studio practice or what was Spoke work was tough.  I knew it would be hard to make decisions as collaborators but it proved to be a little more time consuming and challenging than expected.   On a good note, I was surprised at how much interest individuals and artists had in having events, projects, or shows at Spoke.  Overall, we had a very good response.

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

HM: Some of my very favorite events happened the first and the last year.  It is hard to choose some events over others because there were so many over the three years.  Truthfully, I started to list some and then I looked at our blog and realized that there were so many I liked that listing them would be very hard.  However, I personally liked the one’s that were less gallery like, more experimental in process and reached out to the community, whatever community was chosen or happened to become involved in the project.

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

HM: I learned that it takes a lot of work to run a space like Spoke.  Also, it is especially hard to come up with a good, sustainable business plan if you don’t want to accept certain mainstream ways of working, in this case, the commercial gallery system.  I definitely believe it’s possible but I didn’t have the time and energy to make it happen with everything else going on.  We didn’t think too much about finances but we were constantly scraping by and definitely did not make a penny from our work at Spoke.

ZJ:  What’s next for you?

HM: I am still in Chicago and now have a studio in my house and am working on several collaborative sculptural projects and working on getting my own work out there.  I also am continuing to work as the wood & metal shop manager at the School of the Art Institute, teaching at Columbia College, and proposing and teaching classes at other art and design centers and schools.  I am taking a short-term break from starting groups or organizations because I have done a lot of it over the past 10 years and I need to let all I have learned soak in.

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

HM: As everyone else said, thank you so much to everyone who enabled us to have the opportunity of starting and running Spoke, participated in any of our events and projects at Spoke, and to our fellow studio mates while we were there.   And, of course to the folks at Perez around the corner for the good Mexican food and Margaritas which helped get me through many of the stressful and wonderful Spoke moments.


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