An artist's compound grows in Oak Park

After a year in town, Compound Yellow is finding its footing

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

At the corner of Lake Street and Harvey Avenue, right across the street from Pete's Fresh Market, a series of bright yellow buildings play peek-a-boo with passing traffic. Last month, a temporary installation of red flags planted on the lawn invited pedestrians to break one of the taboos of suburbia and step on the grass and actually take a flag of their own — even as a dense thicket of trees and shrubbery seemed to signal, 'Keep your distance.'

The permanent artist's retreat at 244 Lake St., formally known as Compound Yellow, is the creation of a collective of artists who moved to Oak Park from Hyde Park last June. The compound itself is something of a work of art that plays on all sorts of conventions — doing by example the very work it solicits.

"We work with people who are hybrid artists, who work on the edge of science and art, research and art, politics and art, social activism and art," said Laura Shaeffer, a self-described "informal teacher, curator, organizer, artist, mother." 

Shaeffer, along with Laura Lode and Regin Igloria, live in the main house and share a cooperative studio. There is always an exhibition to plan, works of art to display, events to host. 

Late last month, the compound hosted a 3-day show put on by young people ("I'm calling it the Next Generation, it's about the power of love in a time of need," said Shaeffer). The show was curated by Robert Squitieri, a student attending the School of the Art Institute. There was music, poetry, conversation and a lot of looking. 

The looking part may be what comes most naturally to the site, which used to be home to the world-famous independent artist exhibition space, The Suburban, before it moved to Milwaukee. The space was started as a reaction to Chicago's relatively anemic contemporary commercial art scene, which according to artist David Robbins, was "controlled by a small band of local academics and arts administrators who collaborated, reinforced each other's authority, and vacationed together. 

"During their reign," Robbins writes on The Suburban's website, "the Chicago art world - like the eternal, ruling Democratic machine after which it was modeled - gradually evolved into a profoundly inorganic operation." 

Compound Yellow, The Suburban's successor of sorts, is decidedly organic — down to Schaeffer's ideas to convert the compound's surrounding lawn space into a garden of native plants. 

The compound is also gradually evolving into its own ecosystem for the arts. In the upstairs studio of the main house, the collective hosts monthly film screenings, monthly poetry classes and regular book-binding sessions. On Sundays, the collective offers stencil-making workshops. 

The concept is centered on the temporary autonomous zones that the collective used to host in Hyde Park storefronts. 

"Our temporary autonomous zones were independent centers where anything could happen," Shaeffer said. "We did all kinds of things. We had events, poetry readings, music events. And we'd move from storefront to storefront, with contemporary artists addressing needs that they felt [weren't being met]."

In Oak Park, Schaeffer and her fellow artists are finally planted, the culture they want for themselves taking root. 

"Compound Yellow wants to support a culture of sharing resources and ideas," the artists wrote in a recent joint email statement sent to supporters. 

"We want to make space for subversive acts, courage, vulnerability, care for self and other, acts of generosity, sharing economies, anti-competition and we want to acknowledge, support and work alongside all who have fought and continue to fight for human rights for all," they wrote.

For more information on Compound Yellow, visit compoundyellow.com. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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