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Sixty on Sixty: An Interview with Nicolette Caldwell

In between rounds of PBJ at The Boiler Room, I interviewed our very own Nicolette Caldwell, who co-founded Sixty Inches From Center with Tempestt Hazel. Sixty on Sixty is a new series in which SIFCers interview one another, allowing readers to get to know the fine folks who bring you the latest from Chicago’s art scene.

Nicolette Caldwell in Paris, France. June 2007. (Image courtesy of Nicolette Caldwell.)

Jenny Lam: This is really funny because several months ago you were interviewing me when I applied to Sixty!

Nicolette Caldwell: [laughter] I know!

JL: [laughter] But it’s a totally different context, of course. Can you tell me about yourself and your background?

NC: I started getting involved in art from taking photography classes in high school. At College of DuPage, I continued doing the photography thing, and that eventually led into taking art history classes because they were required for the program. But I ended up liking art history and became less interested in being a maker of photography, so I decided to pursue Art History and transferred to Columbia College Chicago.

I’ve done some traveling: went to Rome, Spain, France—the staples, I guess, of traveling [laughter]—and I really liked Spain a lot, mostly because of the street art community there.

JL: What led you to create Sixty Inches From Center?

NC: During my undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago, I became a part of the Art History Council with Jennifer Patino, who is also our copyeditor—funny how those things work out. It was the first organization for art history majors at Columbia College, and it was really great to help it grow while I was there. It was really because of the council that I started to take more of an initiative with spearheading projects.

A lot of the people I met at Columbia I still collaborate with, including Tempestt Hazel, the co-director of Sixty Inches From Center. She helped the Art History Council out with graphic design and marketing. It is hard to believe how many things we did then. Tempestt and I both realized that we wanted to become more involved with the Chicago art community, because we saw how much we were able to do with just a small organization. We started planning Sixty in June of 2010.

Nicolette Caldwell's "Congo/Women. Responsibility in Images of War" Undergraduate Thesis. Columbia College 2009. (Image courtesy of Nicolette Caldwell.)

JL: What were some of the challenges of starting Sixty?

NC: Initially, finding the time was difficult, but we somehow always manage to fit in time because it is just what has to be done.

I think the second challenge was reaching out to people and letting them know about the organization, getting a sense of validation.

But I think that it comes natural to us, just to work really hard, so I don’t really feel like there were any real difficult challenges. Anything that came up that required a little bit more time or something we didn’t expect, it was just, “OK! We’ll get through it and we’ll figure out what we need to do,” and was never an issue.

JL: On the flip side, what have been the most rewarding things about starting Sixty?

NC: I’m really satisfied with the team we have developed. It’s sort of like an inter-community of the organization. The group that we currently have with all of our contributors, we meet every week and keep each other up to date with what we’re doing. It is rewarding to see all the great things that everyone else is doing aside from just writing for us; everyone who’s contributing for us is doing really awesome stuff, so I’m glad that they want to stay dedicated and find time for us while they continue to pursue non-Sixty things.

The opportunities that came from the network that we’ve started to develop: we hooked up with WBEZ for “What’s Your Art?” We haven’t even been around for a year and we already partnered with a radio station and are developing partnerships with other really amazing organizations. That’s just insane! We have interviewed over 80 Chicago artists since last fall!

We partnered with Harold Washington Library to assist them with the Chicago Artists Archive. Jes Standefer, one of our contributors, is working on developing a small display case of artists who are in the archive. So the opportunities that have happened for some of our contributors because of Sixty is also really gratifying.

Nicolette Caldwell (left) and Casey Champion (right) for "Sixty Inches From Center: Contemporary Graffiti Exhibition." Luan Board Writing by The S7VENTIST. C33 Gallery, Chicago 2010. (Image courtesy of Nicolette Caldwell.)

JL: You’ve lived in Logan Square for five years and you’re obviously very involved in this city. What are the best parts of the Chicago art scene? What is unique to Chicago?

NC: It’s interesting; I had a wrong opinion of what the community was like, that there wasn’t a lot of interaction other than the main institutions and the bigger art centers. But then I’ve come to find, after investing my time with the community over time, that it’s really close. Everybody knows everybody, and if you don’t know somebody, someone within your network knows that person. I am not joking; it is really like that.

Chicago is a good place to test out opportunities for yourself and get a little bit more exposure, faster. There are more opportunities available for someone who hasn’t necessarily “made it” yet. Not that Chicago’s not competitive, but there are definitely more opportunities to get a little bit more publicity than if you were in L.A. or New York. What do you think? Do you agree?

JL: I definitely think that’s true. For instance, people can start alternative spaces here a lot more easily.

NC: Right, like the Happy Collaborationists. I met Anna Trier and Hadley Vogel at Columbia College. They started that alternative space when they were finishing their undergraduate, and it’s grown since then. Now they’re collaborating with ACRE. I’ll tell you one thing: their Art History degrees did not teach them how to run an art space the way they do; they did it themselves and they are doing an amazing job!

JL: How did you become involved with the Chicago street art scene?

NC: When I lived in Berwyn, I lived near a train yard, so in the 90s, I would see a lot of train cars with graffiti on them, and I remember always seeing that growing up. When I started living in Chicago, I really started to pay attention to it. It had nothing really to do with the Banksy and Shepard Fairey hype in the early 2000s; I never really followed them much until after I started really investing my interest with Chicago street art. So I was kind of late in the game as far as that goes. I just genuinely fell in love with the artwork and really appreciate art in the public space. So I started noticing things like that in Chicago, and once I started noticing a few, then I noticed it everywhere. I always look in alleys, or when I’m on the train, I always look on the backs of the buildings and the places with pretty regular activity where I always expect to find new work from time to time.

Then there was an opportunity for me to curate an art exhibition at Columbia College. I submitted a proposal but decided I wanted to do something different from what you would expect to see in a gallery, let alone a college gallery, so I thought I would do something involving street art, because at that point I hadn’t seen anything like that in Chicago. There might’ve been shows before then based on that idea, but I didn’t know of them. I co-curated the show with Casey Champion, another graduate of the Art History Department at Columbia College. The exhibition gave Chicago-based artists an opportunity to work in a space, but as a group of artists that also make art for the street.

Because of the show, I was also able to develop some really great relationships with some of the artists who participated. I’m really grateful for that because they are good people!

Nicolette Caldwell (left) and Tempestt Hazel (right) in front of Hebru Brantley's studio, Zhou B Art Center. October 2010. (Image courtesy of Nicolette Caldwell.)

JL: What are some goals you have for yourself and for SIFC, both in the near future and in the long run?

NC: There are so many things we want to do! SIFC is already a full-time organization; we spend full-time hours working on it. Our writers—you guys—spend a ton of time working on your projects, and Andrew, Tempestt, and I spend a lot of time on it. We are applying for 501(c)(3) status and waiting to hear back about our CAAP Grant application. Once we find out, we can send out our 501(c)(3) application [a few weeks after the interview, SIFC did indeed get the CAAP Grant].

I would like to be able to take more time working on developing curatorial projects aside from SIFC and continue working with the street art community, continue working on the “On Public Art” series. I’d like to continue developing my curatorial voice and vision in general. Finding the time to do that is difficult, though, between SIFC and my day job and personal obligations. So maybe this summer I’ll have some time to really work on that.

You will see a series of projects happening between us and Johalla Projects, so that is pretty great. We’ll be working on a few public wall commissions; Ruben Aguirre will be participating along with other artists. I met him at a panel discussion at the Murphy Hill Gallery back in January. I went and recorded the conversation and did a small bit about it on SIFC. He was one of the panelists, so I contacted him and asked him if he would be interested in interviewing for SIFC, so he accepted, and then I interviewed him. I wish I could tell you more, but the project is still developing at this point.


Jenny Lam blogs at Artists on the Lam. Her Twitter handle is @TheJennyLam.

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