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On Public Art: Pawn Works

Chicago has an abundant history of prolific graffiti writers and street artists. Outside of their own trusted community, many of these artists do not get the chance to speak about their experiences and their love for what they do. This series focuses on giving the microphone back to the artists who create public art in Chicago. Through these interviews our hope is to not only archive the efforts of these artists, but also to achieve a better understanding of the art itself—including why it’s important for graffiti art and street art to continue and to receive still more support.

As part of the “On Public Art” series, I wanted to do something different and include perspectives of not only artists creating for public spaces but also professionals in the arts who work as facilitators on this matter. Nick and Seth, founders and directors of Pawn Works, a contemporary gallery for emerging artists, recently sat down with me (Seth via Skype) and expressed their passion for public art and how that has full-heartedly inspired most of the programming that occurs in their gallery space. These are not just two kids from the block—they are two of the movers and shakers of public art inside and outside of Chicago—particularly pertaining to sticker art and the recent street art trends happening in New York and Chicago.

How did Pawn Works start?

Exterior of Pawn Works door. (Photograph by Nicolette Caldwell)Nick: It started more as a standard contemporary “brick ‘n mortar” gallery. Seth and I are both from Cleveland, Ohio. We went different routes after high school; I went to the University of Cincinnati and studied Art History and Sociology and ended up getting a double major in both. So then I got a job out here working with the Art Institute. As far as most art goes, it was the people that I met in school and people around me that got me really propelled into it. I started showing paintings of classmates and kids that I was really close with. Once I was working at the Art Institute I branched away from there and started Pawn Works as more of a conceptual way to help distribute art. It hasn’t really had much of an identity until the last few months, but even now we keep a loose identity in what we do and its projects and the sticker thing.

Seth: I spent time at Columbia College then left to begin a career working in commercial photography. That career brought me to New York, where I continue to work with commercial photography as my day job, and the other hours are split between Pawn Works.

What is it like working long-distance?

Nick: Seth was here in Chicago and moved to New York right around the same time that we were talking about the sticker project, and it was more of a concept of mine to elevate one particular show that I was doing before Seth was involved. Then we kind of started thinking about reaching out to artists and possibly reaching out to these guys that we are fans of. So we kind of went from fan to peer, through the sticker thing, with a lot of these  artists. Seth, being based out of New York at the same time, was really crucial for all of this because it allowed us to be on the ground there, which with most of the people we are working with there tends to be a lot of paranoia so they tend to keep anonymity with themselves and their art as best as possible, so meeting for a beer to catch up with somebody through e-mail was the go-to-way to get involved with anybody like that. Seth being in New York has made that all possible.

Is that how this project started through your interest in this sticker culture and “public art?”

Nick: The space itself, Pawn Works (as an art gallery and as a facilitator of the arts), just kind of shows [that] our involvement and everything we do is passion-driven. The gallery itself has existed as something I was doing on my own, and I was showcasing contemporary emerging artists (mostly local) from Denver, Fort Collins and artists who are now in Brooklyn now, which were good classmates of mine, and I kind of feel compelled to show their work as we move forward.

Did it kind of snowball from presenting your friends that are talented artists, and expand from there?

Nick: Yeah, very much so. And then we just kept doing it.

Seth: Nick started literally from the most grassroots way of showing artists. There was a time when Nick was transforming his apartment into a gallery for the weekend. He would move all his furniture around and make it a destination for people to go. As time has grown and finances have grown, he has been able to provide a bigger space to showcase these artists. I think that both of us collectively—even though while Nick was doing that and showing these emerging artists—we both had been collecting art. The way I think it started (at least for me) with collecting work that is derivative from the streets was because buying a print in the late 90s and early 2000s was affordable, and was a way to buy art that was accessible. And buying a print for 50 or 40 bucks was an affordable way to put art on the wall. That is how Nick took off and started Pawn Works.

Nick: In the last year or so we started going more the street art route when I linked up with Seth. We were able to be at the peer level, show and facilitate the work, as well as the artists who we have already been collecting for the last ten years or so.

All City Block Party. Factory Fresh. Pawn Works Sticker Vendor. (Photograph courtesy by Pawn Works)

So have you had an ongoing relationship with these artists or is this something that just developed, even though you had been collecting their work previously?

Nick: The direct contact of the street artists and most of the people on the sticker club roster has really developed through the partnership with Seth and him now being in Brooklyn. We have reached out to Ray McGrath with Brooklynite Gallery, which does kind of the same thing in comparison with the something like the Johnathan Levine Gallery. He is on the ground and very in touch with the artists, and so by working with him and coming to the table with the sticker project was our way in the door with this level of artist, for sure.

Seth: People like him and the Factory Fresh Gallery [were] really being a part of this idea from its infancy. When we came up with the concept we were working with the same emerging contemporary artist mentality. We were still looking for artists and working with people who were not so much established, and trying to find a way to network them to different people. From that, and having these people in New York be supportive of the project and believe in it, we were really able to boost our roster of artists that we are working with and it kind of snowballed from there.

RAE's opening at Brooklynite. New York, New York. Photograph courtesy by Pawn Works)

I am curious, how do you fund the programming?

Nick: Until this past February the gallery was just the front room and I was living in the back. So I was living in here and it was a share of my rent, so actually, if you are willing to cut your apartment up and not have very much living space, it was a mildly affordable way to go about it; but you are giving up a large part of your life to be able to do that, which I was more than happy to do. These days, I do freelance art-handling work here in the city as well as for traveling exhibits such as SOFA and with international galleries from Montreal and Manchester, England but its nice to be at the point we are now where everything we do is, at least, self-sustaining, the sticker club vending machines business has proven to be very important to our overall project, Pawn Works. Oh yeah, I check ID’S on the side sometimes at local spots too, so…

Seth: At the core, Pawn Works is a labor of love, and I think that Nick and I both pour all of our blood and sweat into working other jobs to financially support something that we are passionate about.

How has working in different cities been more of an advantage?

Seth: Being away from Chicago and seeing what is going on in other cities and kind of being curious why the caliber of art isn’t coming to Chicago; it was really was confusing after leaving and coming back. So we posed the question, “Well, if someone else isn’t doing it, then why aren’t we, and why can’t we do it? Why can’t we be the ones who bring and inspire more people in Chicago to be doing outsider art?”

Nick: That is entirely where we are. It is more affordable, things are more plausible and you get can things done. We recently partnered with Maxwell Collette Gallery and it was a real success. His first show that he did was a secondary market show of amazing work that was also a great success here in Chicago, but three years ago that show would have been ill-timed in New York city and L.A. while here it was the first time that many people would have seen something like Banksy prints in person in a gallery setting. There is definitely plenty of wiggle-room and it is without a doubt the reason I stayed here.

Between the artists you are working with and your audience, how are your projects at Pawn Works received?

Sugar Junkies. Girl spraying stencil on van.  (Photograph courtesy by Pawn Works)Nick: As far as Chicago, the people that we had last year are receiving the work differently. And this is something that Seth and I still need to feel out because this was our first show coming off of an event we did in Miami with Brooklynite Gallery called “Sugar Junkie.” It was kind of a upcoming art party for us where all the street artists were involved. Because we were just a new name gallery from Chicago that showed up in Miami during the height of the Basel experience, and then all of a sudden we are being rep’d with Brooklynite Gallery. Especially in Chicago and with the Gaia thing, we have a whole new audience. There are people who are aware of us but people who have come to all of the past shows seemed to be interested, but all mentioned that it was so much bigger than last year and that our space has really evolved.

Seth: I think that, as far as the terms of artists that we have been working with, it started off with the sticker project where we were the ones reaching out to the artists, and now the artists are really responsive in a positive way to the project and who is involved, and people are really wanting to be a part of it to the point where we have to be selective of who we can approved because we are budgetary. In general, the artists are feeling it.

Nick: The artists have been paying attention and that is what you want, because you know the role is being facilitated. On the local tip not many people know about us. We see our role as about making Chicago part of the worldwide conversation, particularly with street art. With graffiti it is hard because not many people are trying to lump those together, and they need to be lumped together because graffiti spawned the street art movement. A lot of shows don’t take that into consideration and you see these urban art shows that are these collective retrospectives [and I know there is going to be one in Chicago soon at Chicago Urban Art Society] but a lot of these shows don’t implement the actual graph work, and I think they do it as a conscious effort to stay away from the vandalism and to make it more acceptable in the broader sense of contemporary art. But particularly the Art In The Streets’ Show that is going on at MOCA in L.A, that show is going to have a strong “graff” base, though serious players are always going to be left out when doing such a retrospective, as is the case with that show.

There is a lot of skepticism about it, but it is ultimately going to be defining street art and graffiti art in the fine art context in a big museum where a five year old is going to see this as part of their school trip, or with the hip father or cool mom. It is going to be the thing that you are forced to see, so now you are going to get that whole element that, even though this is alternative to most people, to other people it is not going to be alternative now and it is going to be that thing that you have to, which you are not going to like. It is like when I went to see a French Impressionist exhibit. I like Monet more now as I am older, but not when I was twelve going to see a Monet exhibit.

Sugar Junkies Van.  (Photograph courtesy by Pawn Works)

I think that ultimately the important thing that we need to continue doing is educating the public properly about it. But moving forward, I wanted to ask you how artists are able to become involved with Pawn Works. Do you accept proposals or is it mostly invitational?

Nick: For the exhibitions, Seth and myself consciously curate it. The sticker machine, it is a little bit of both. People send us random stuff. A lot of times it is artists that we are already familiar with who we would reach out to. But now it is getting to the point where the artists that we are getting [are] completely new people sending us stuff from all over the world.

What would you like your Chicago audience to think of you as?

Nick: We just want to make Chicago part of the worldwide conversation. Through the sticker thing, in a small way, I think we started to do that. We have a really strong UK presence, which is pretty flattering. And a lot of artists from UK are now on our roster. It is not an intentional thing to dismiss Chicago by any means, it is an angle to propel Chicago by bringing in all these other artists and its just been better received overseas.

Well, not necessarily in the Art History books but it is really exciting to see the conversation expanding.

Nick: Exponentially, even over the last year, with the release of the Banksy movie following the whole PR thing with the Oscars, and now this Art in The Streets exhibit, that all has been very consciously choreographed—for the last twenty years by players like Jeffery Deitch, as far as I can see. I don’t know anybody behind the show; personally, it is just my opinion.

Gaia in Chicago.  (Photograph courtesy by Pawn Works)

What is your vision with Pawn Works? Do you see yourself as the Chicago version of Deitch Projects?

Seth: Our biggest goal is to be facilitators of the arts. With the residency we are creating an outlet for local artists and out-of-towners. Hopefully, as things progress with Pawn Works, we are able to provide more legal spaces in the city for artists, I think that that is really our goal, to push Chicago forward and bring more internationally acclaimed artists to the city and to inspire the youth. Once the scene is created then it will become more localized. The outsiders will want to come in and start giving a hand.

Nick: NO,NO,NO, just to quickly clarify… Ultimately, with facilitating anything, we want both parties to be happy. But if we had to choose one it would be more about the artists. We are in it for the work and it is definitely a passion-driven thing on our end. We just want the artists to feel respected by us and we have a couple artists that are legitimately “established”, internationally renowned street artists who trust what we are doing. We want to make the artists really comfortable with us, as well as Chicago.

How did the partnership with Maxwell Collette originate?

Nick: We both bring completely different elements to the table. We are a little more connected to the street and he is a little more connected to [the] fine art end, which is what we are both trying to do— to express that dichotomy to the public. Especially with that last show, showing street art as content, but now you’re in a fine art gallery.

How did you facilitate the work that Gaia did while he was in Chicago?

Nick: We did a mural with Gaia behind Heaven Gallery wall of an image from a Martha Cooper photo, but it looks like when you are coming north, like it is illegal, but it was allowed and was a legal spot which gave the artist time to do what he wanted to do. And this is what we are trying to do, to get these spots where owners allow artists to do these kinds of pieces.

What does your audience look like right now?

David Soukup. Pawn Works door stencil.  (Photograph courtesy by Pawn Works)Seth: Pawn Works right now is more recognized internationally than it is regionally in Chicago. Even in New York people know what Pawn Works is and they know what it is about more so than they do in Chicago. What I would really like to see happen in the next couple of years is, instead of us having this big international presence, is that I want to be more community-driven and involved with schools and the communities. Really be able to be involved in more community-based projects.

Nick: I would say it is twice as big. On Facebook we have a lot of students and on Twitter only 10% are Chicago. The people who chime in tend to be from the UK, New York City and L.A. It is all the level of artists that we are working with. The artists that we have shown have been written up in magazines like Art Forum, Hi-Fructose, Juxtapose, etc. But I want people in Chicago to be more hip to it.

Sometimes it just takes time. You have your central places that are frequented the most and then everything else sort of falls off the map. It sometimes doesn’t matter how great the show is because I think a lot of times people just don’t pay attention or take the time to educate themselves.

Nick: For sure. I totally agree, and hopefully that does not end up hurting us. But ultimately that is what we want to do by having these artists get places to put work on the street, and we are going to facilitate these guys’ work in as many places as we can. This stuff in particular, I mean, all of this street art stuff stems straight from graffiti almost solely. It started as a territorial thing and gang graffiti was long before the social club graffiti and the script and character letters and fills and all the hand styles.

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