Humble Recognition: The Pilsen Art House
Written by Rachel Fernandez
The Pilsen Art House sits comfortably in the welcoming Lower West Side Chicago neighborhood. The colorfully painted brick exterior leads to a propped open door which acts as an invitation for anyone who wants to stop in. The inside of the home teems with a mix of artwork and common household appliances.
This venue provides all of the comforts of home. Inside, an eclectic and creative crowd mingles around vintage lamps, small wooden end tables, and art and photography from up-and-coming artists. The theme of this particular night is “Fetish ~ All Women, All Art."
Seductive photos and paintings saturated with crimson and black tones line the living room walls, and viewers comment on the artwork from a cozy couch. Posters featuring a leather boot and the word “Fetish” in bold red letters cover a mirror in the kitchen. More viewers point out pictures above the stove and on the fridge. Every piece on display came from a female artist.
Creator, event coordinator, and matriarch of the Pilsen Art House, Lorie Ranker, established the home three-and-a-half years ago as a DIY venue to display more under-represented and female artists.
As a first-generation American with both parents from the Philippines, Ranker found herself coming from a very patriarchal culture. She feels that “women are often suppressed,” and this belief influences who she features in the house.
“Now that I have a venue, I have the ability to raise people up a little bit,” Ranker says. “I’m going to support those who need a leg up. I think it’s my duty. That’s why I intentionally seek out up-and-coming [and female] artists.”
Creating the house came as a natural instinct to Ranker because of her own long-time interest in art. Along with being an artist herself, Ranker has always been a fan of scouting for music and art through independent shows and galleries.
As the home fills up, a group of close friends take their conversation to the back porch and sit in a circle of mismatched chairs. One of the chairs is a dismantled toilet that wobbles when someone sits on the tank. The friends happily reminisce on other events they have attended together at the house.
It becomes clear that the venue does more than simply provide a space for independent artists. It also created a community.
Although the Pilsen Art House hosts several exhibits, concerts, and workshops throughout the year, “Fetish” is part of Pilsen’s regular monthly event called Art First Fridays. Regardless of the problems in the rest of the world, the first Friday of every month is dedicated to DIY galleries, studios, and creative spaces in the Lower West Side neighborhood opening up their doors for creators and consumers to explore the area and local artists.
“I think all of the surrounding DIY spaces are part of the same family,” Ranker says. “I don’t see us being in any sort of competition. We are all supportive of each other and this type of art and music.”
As the sun sets behind the Chicago skyline, the guests’ faces are lit by the glow of embers rising from a fire pit. Conversation and laughter fill the springtime air as night eats away at the remaining rays of twilight. Although discussions have drifted away from the art inside, there is no doubt that the exhibit is contributing to the creation of a broader community of independent artists in Chicago.
“I love bringing people together,” Ranker says. “Sometimes the gatherings aren’t that big, but it could be five people and I’d still see it as a success. For me it’s always the effort. People can come when they find something that resonates with them and when they want to be a part of the event or community.”
The home boasts the “Fetish” exhibit, with its controversial content and taboo themes, but it also hosts more subdued events. In the most recent Art First Friday, the Pilsen Art House hosted an exhibit titled “Energy and Alchemy.”
The event consisted of a more spiritual environment and featured a local musician along with palm and tarot card readers— focusing on “creating a serene and welcoming space for the guests to feel comfortable and open to receiving practitioners work,” according to Pilsen Art House’s description.
Despite the dichotomy between this and the “Fetish” event, the sense of community that comes with the Pilsen Art House stays with the venue regardless of what is on display.
“I feel like people really want to communicate here, and I love the energy that the venue and the visitors provide,” says Sarah Luczko, a tarot card reader featured at the “Energy and Alchemy” event. “Reading tarot cards at events can be ostracizing since you have to stay in your own space. Being here, though, I feel included and integrated with the circle and the people in this environment. The space feels familiar in the same way your own house feels familiar.”
As the night continued at the “Energy and Alchemy” event, one of the featured independent musicians Katrina Jean began her set by filling the atmosphere with ambient sounds from a Tibetan singing bowl. She transitioned into playing calming tunes on her keyboard and acoustic guitar while encouraging the visitors to accompany her on bongos that are open to the public. Some audience members indulged in her offer and rhythmically tapped the drums to the slow beats of her songs. Her soft, melodic voice latched to the warm summer air as a small crowd listened intently and swayed with the music.
The comforting and approachable community at the Pilsen Art House was omnipresent, and the positive energy was contagious to more than the featured artist and repeat visitors.
“I felt like a part of the community from the moment I walked in,” says first time attendee Lauren Minga. “The whole crowd was friendly and creative in a very accepting way. The event was welcoming and open, and I’m always excited to promote local artists and venues.”
Although many of the events hosted by the Pilsen Art House are successful in bringing the Chicago independent art community closer together, Ranker does not see the venue expanding any time soon.
“Maybe it will be big one day, but for right now, I like the intimacy,” Ranker said. “I like having control over what happens in the space. I like for everything that happens here to have my hand it it. Plus, I like being able to talk to people and getting to know them.”
The crowd thinned out at the end of the “Energy and Alchemy” event, and the night felt cool and serene. Visitors who were strangers at 6 p.m. left together at 10 p.m. There seemed to be an unspoken consensus that many of these artists will see each other again.
As the last of the small crowd left, a nearby streetlight shone its soft yellow hue like a modest spotlight over the colorfully painted brick exterior. The warm glow mimicked the objective of the Pilsen Art House by giving it beautifully humble recognition.
Contact Rachel by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
All Photos courtesy of Megan Stringer