Garage Days

The Studio Extension
by Jonathan Wright

A newly opened space brings art to an unconventional setting.

It started with a need for space. “I just wanted a place to have a studio,” offers Jessica Bingham, an abstract painter and mixed-media artist. “I thought about the basement, but my work was so large, there would be no room to grow. So I started talking to Zach about the garage.”

“We always hang out in the grad studio and talk about ideas,” adds printmaker Alex Martin, a fellow grad student, and partner with Bingham and her husband, Zach Ott, on the project. As an undergrad at West Virginia University, Martin knew a student who turned his studio into a gallery and invited other artists to exhibit there. “And so, we started talking about it.” That need for studio space soon developed into Project 1612, an alternative exhibition space and artist residency program in the heart of Peoria.

Inspiration and Immediacy
As long as there has been art, there have been unconventional settings for its exhibition. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, a wave of alternative spaces arose in the United States—a reaction to the immaculate galleries and commercial pressures of the traditional art world. Often artist-run and always artist-focused, these venues were noncommercial and built for experimentation, showcasing contemporary art that wasn’t being shown in established art institutions. Though typically found in the rougher, industrial parts of cities—dilapidated factories, repurposed schools, abandoned storefronts or decaying municipal buildings—each had a unique story and life of its own.

As Bingham’s graduate work progressed at Bradley University, a professor encouraged her to look beyond traditional art galleries as an outlet for her work. With an underutilized garage at home, the larger idea of creating a space for artists began to take shape. With Martin and her husband on board, Bingham took inspiration from a variety of curious settings—from Porch Projects, a now-defunct gallery and workspace located in the back porch of a century-old row house in Washington DC, to Kitchen Space, a project and exhibition space set in the kitchen of a modest apartment in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

Closer to home, DEMO Project in Springfield, Illinois, was another touchstone. The small house on the Springfield Art Association campus is currently scheduled for demolition to make way for a new ceramics and glassblowing facility, but until its walls come down, the vacant space is being put to use as a contemporary art gallery. And then, there was The Suburban—a tiny, 9’x9’ space outside the Oak Park home of Michelle Grabner, a well-known artist and professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her husband, artist Brad Killam. “We emailed The Suburban,” Bingham recalls. “I wanted to ask a bunch of questions… Where do people park? Do you provide housing for them? Michelle got back to us right away and was so kind.” 

The concept progressed rapidly: just a few days after brainstorming with Martin, Bingham had a Kickstarter page up and running online. “We’re big fans of immediacy,” Martin laughs. “I was like, ‘What? Okay, we have a Kickstarter now—let’s do this.’” Launched on April 17, 2015, the campaign sought $4,000 in crowdfunding to transform Bingham and Ott’s detached garage into a studio and exhibition space. They attained this goal in less than a month, with 38 backers pledging $4,075 to bring Project 1612 to life. “Two days later, we put up a call for artists, and two days after that, we had our first three artists booked!”

Building a Template
“We want to give artists in all stages of their careers a place to work and show without any commercial components,” reads the initial call for submissions. “Therefore, there is no curator, no application fee, no participation fee and no sales. We are interested in letting artists explore ideas without those obstacles, while bringing or creating art they see fit for the space.”

“We know how expensive it can be for artists to constantly be paying for applications, and then not get in,” Bingham stresses. “We wanted to be able to not charge anything at all—that was a big thing for us.”

The monthly residencies will be short—just four or five days—so artists can “respond to the space and create without hesitation, then end their stay with an exhibition,” she explains. And while working in the garage, visiting artists can stay in their guest bedroom. “I like when people come over and feel at home. Zach and I will cook meals and be around if they need help, and Alex will [also] be here.”

Among those already scheduled for residencies is an eclectic mix of filmmakers, sculptors, composers, performance artists and writers from Peoria, Chicago, St. Louis, Virginia and beyond. “We’re pretty much open to anything,” says Bingham. “We don’t want to narrow it down, because you never know what you’d be missing out on.”

One unique submission came all the way from Austria, where Vienna artist Klaus Pinter has created a series of small, interactive sculptures out of heavyweight paper. “Since it’s impossible for him to be here, he sends everything via mail,” Martin explains. Pinter will provide paper templates, which will then be cut, painted, crumpled, assembled and installed per his instructions. “We’ll have his show at the end of September.”

The same month, Peoria’s Backspace Collective—which counts Bingham as a member—will host its annual members’ show at Project 1612. Given the group’s current lack of a physical home, it’s an appropriate fit. “As a member of Backspace, I’ve become more aware of other ways to show your work,” Bingham notes. “They have to be open to a lot of different things. So I think we’re just offering another venue for people to show their work.”

The Riches of Community
Project 1612 held its grand opening in early August, featuring the work of Sara Peak Convery, a Chicago-based visual artist and filmmaker. With artists and guests milling in and around the garage-turned-gallery, which Convery christened by painting on the walls, the intent was not only to celebrate a space, but a community. For its creators, the social aspects of Project 1612—the opportunity to meet new people, collaborate with them and bounce ideas around—are compelling motivators. “I do need to feed that mind,” Bingham declares. “So it will be nice to have artists here all the time.”

“And to network with other artists,” Martin adds, noting that Peoria’s arts community was among the top reasons he decided to move here. “There’s so much happening, art-wise. I’ve only been here a few months, but I’ve met so many awesome artists and people doing things. If we can show that to others, it gives them a chance to go out and see Peoria. And it lets the people here see their work, so everybody gets to broaden their horizons a little bit.”

“I think that’s one of the reasons we are staying around here,” Bingham notes. “Zach works at Cat… but for me, I really wanted to be able to stay here and feel like this was also my home.” One sign of an increasingly vibrant arts community is a wealth of art to showcase—too much to be confined within the walls of established institutions. And with the insulation, drywall and track lighting newly ensconced within this unassuming little garage, the arts in Peoria are all the richer for it. a&s

Project 1612 is located at 1612 W. Margaret Ave in Peoria. For more information, visit project16twelve.wix.com/project1612.

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