Room on the Rack/ Art of Work/ Greener Pastures | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Room on the Rack/ Art of Work/ Greener Pastures 

Part shop, part gallery, Andrea Arsenault's designers' co-op gives local fashion an outlet.

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Room on the Rack

When Andrea Arsenault heard that Chicago was about to lose its only fashion co-op, she decided to take the matter into her own hands.

Since 1995 Made to Fit had given local designers a space at 2229 N. Clybourn where they could display and sell their work, but the owner was moving downstate and closing up shop. Arsenault, a professor in fashion design at the School of the Art Institute, had former students who sold their work at Made to Fit, and she knew the store had a good client base. On a leave of absence from the school, she took over the lease, gave the shop a face-lift, and in March re-opened it as A. Arsenault Designer Cooperative.

"We're really a cross between a gallery and a shop," she explains. Fifteen local designers sell their fashions through the co-op, paying Arsenault a 10 percent commission and working behind the counter for a day and a half each month. Arsenault estimates that as many as 40 designers currently sell their fashions in Chicago; she hopes to increase the shop's roster to 20 eventually, and she's prominently displayed her designers' names over individual sections. While the shop currently stocks only women's wear, she plans to expand into men's shirts and ties.

If Chicago fashion has a distinctive look, she says, it's characterized by solid shape, good use of fabric, and superb construction. Among the designers at A. Arsenault are Beata Kania, known for her exquisite hand-detailing; Lou Hong, whose baggy, cross-cultural designs feature mixed prints and three-dimensional pockets; and Christopher Lam and Calvin Holm, who specialize in casual women's wear. The shop also carries scarves by Nancy Zwick, European-style beaded jewelry by Sophia Forero, and handmade hats by local milliners Laura Whitlock and Eia.

Art of Work

"Many of our members don't often see their lives reflected in the world of the arts," says Don Turner, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. The toiling field hands of Jean-Francois Millet and the sweating industrial workers of the WPA murals have largely disappeared from contemporary art. But the CFL is trying to revive the link between art and labor with "Union Images 1998," a juried show of 60 paintings and photographs depicting life in the workplace; the show runs April 6 through 17 at the James R. Thompson Center.

The CFL mounted a similar exhibit two years ago to celebrate its 100th anniversary, and the idea proved so successful that the executive board has voted to make it a biennial event, with monetary awards totaling $10,000. "This is a union organization," says Elena Marcheschi, program director of the CFL workers' assistance committee and curator of this year's exhibit. "We believe people should get paid when they work." But despite the generous award fund, "Union Images 1998" drew a relatively small number of submissions, approximately 100 from across the state. Marcheschi says the CFL advertised in national publications and targeted mailings to members of the Chicago Artists' Coalition and the Illinois Arts Council.

The subject matter itself might account for the small turnout; many of the artists who did submit pieces seemed to have a specific interest in labor or came from back-grounds that enabled them to relate to the exhibit's theme. Chicago artist Michael Paxton, a 1996 prizewinner who served as a jury member this time, grew up in a West Virginia working-class family. And Michael Nevin, who took first prize this year, says he was driven to paint people at work. "Though I have never been part of a labor union, my father was a lifelong union member," he says. "So it was very much a part of my growing up." His painting Bridge Repairs shows men arrayed against an overwhelming geometric mass of steel girders, suggesting what Nevin calls "the quiet solidarity and cohesion which can be part of the work experience."

If the exhibit has a problem, it's the near absence of work reflecting the white-collar experience. According to exhibit organizers, artists are naturally attracted to the more dramatic imagery associated with blue-collar work, though Marcheschi says that more than 50 percent of the CFL's membership is now comprised of white-collar employees. Yet the CFL's member unions seem equally enamored of these romantic images from labor's past: many works in the 1996 show were bought by unions and now decorate the walls of union meeting halls and offices.

Greener Pastures

A decidedly frosty wind carried Gregory Henderson out of town last winter, but the actor's one-man show, Big Wind on Campus, has landed on its feet in Washington, D.C. A charming play in which Henderson played a collection of oddballs on a southern college campus, Big Wind opened in September 1996 at the 80-seat Victory Gardens Studio Theater. With little money for advertising, Henderson had to depend on word of mouth to fill the house, and the play never managed to find a solid audience; some think it simply got lost in the dizzying shuffle of off-Loop shows. Big Wind limped along for five months and closed in late January 1997.

But last fall Henderson took the show, renamed Whirlwind!, to the Church Street Theater in the heart of Washington's Dupont Circle theater district. This time positive press and aggressive promotional efforts led to a successful six-month run. Now Henderson has been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award as best actor in a nonresident theatrical production; award winners will be announced on May 4. Henderson plans to move the show to Provincetown, Massachusetts, for the summer and hopes to take it to New York eventually. He might even brave the subzero winds of Chicago again, but not until Whirlwind! has earned its credentials in New York.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Andrea Arsenault photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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