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Pre-order our book YOU ARE AN ARTIST (which includes new assignments!) here: In which we explore our neighboring city of Chicago, film with two local artists, and see more art in one day than is probably advisable.

Nuevo Leon Bakery
Chicago Cultural Center
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art
The Stony Island Arts Bank
Smart Museum of Art
Elmhurst Art Museum

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Sarah: On a nondescript day in February, we got up and began our drive from Indianapolis to Chicago. It's not that remarkable of a drive, which makes its remarkable moments truly exciting-- like when you see the array of wind turbines off I-65. But then there's really nothing until you get to Gary, Indiana, where you see the remains of the steel industry and the guts that fueled the city of Chicago. Then the traffic gets worse and worse as the skyline gets closer and closer, and then you're there.

We went directly to the West Side of Chicago to Pilsen, traditionally a Mexican American neighborhood, and stopped at Nuevo Leon bakery. You get a tray and some tongs, and then the world is yours. We filled our tray with delectable baked goods, including-- yes, that's right-- a giant doughnut, and felt like thieves after paying only $5.62 for everything. We took our haul to Assaf Evron's studio, and had a great time talking with Assaf and filming his brilliant assignment. We talk about a lot of things during our interviews, and so a little of it makes it into the episode, but one tidbit that Assaf shared kept resurfacing for me during the rest of my time in the city. He said,

Assaf: When everybody asked why I'm in the Midwest, I said like, because of the boredom. And people look at me as if, how can you say that? Boredom is very interesting and a very productive environment for making.

Sarah: We'll come back to that, but just hold it in your mind for now.

So by coincidence, our second artist worked just five minutes away, so we jumped over to the studio of the delightful Maria Gaspar and filmed her assignment. It's a testament to the health of the cultural life of Chicago that you can travel just moments away to experience the distinct mini worlds of two successful artists with vastly different practices.

Afterwards, we were exhausted, and found dinner close by at Dusek's, a so-called gastropub, which is really just a term for a bar that serves food that isn't bad. And this one was really, really good. We had fries that, they helpfully explain, are fried in beef fat, unlike a bar that is not a gastropub that fries in five-day-old hydrogenated mystery oil. The cocktails were creative and tasty, as was the root vegetable cassoulet, and it was the perfect end to the day.

We woke up early to go to Xoco, Rick Bayless' Mexican street place, which is usually super crowded. So weekday breakfast is the way to go. The fresh churros were fresh churro good, as were the poblano cheese torta and chilaquiles. I'm glad we had a hearty breakfast, because we were embarking on an art marathon, and it was really windy that day. I know, I know. Chicago's the Windy City. But there's definitely something about the way the wind whips off the lake and smacks you in the face with an extreme ferocity that feels like the worst insult that's ever been directed at you.

But even so, we made it to the Chicago Cultural Center to see the Present Standard exhibition curated by artists Edra Soto and Josue Pellot, a group show of US-based Latino artists whose works consider the concept of a standard today-- be it a flag, a symbol of identity, or an idea. Walking through the show, I was really affected by the curatorial frame, thinking of each of these works as a flag and the artist as a kind of absent standard bearer. I especially enjoyed this work by Alejandro Figueredo Diaz-Perera, titled "The Silence is Overrated," made of a fan motor, a broom stick, a microphone and speaker. I felt as if the microphone had had enough, was tired of no one speaking into it, and had to take matters into its own hands.

Then we zipped over to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which had some really great shows up. There's no way the MCA could have known however many months ago that the current political race would be the unmitigated circus that it is, but that's why they engage prescient artists like Katherine Andrews, whose show, "Run for President," is a glorious mash up of the imagery and objects of Hollywood and American politics. The show elicited for me a simultaneous joy in this bright, dizzying, and cheeky reflection on our celebrity-obsessed society, and discomfort with the pageantry we fall prey to in our media consumption and in our political decisions.

There were also excellent shows of works from the MCA's permanent collection, like "Surrealism: The Conjured Life," whose ingenious exhibition design includes a spiraling wall at its center. Inside the spiral is painted purple and displays works by the core surrealist, like Rene Magritte, Max Ernst, and Jean Dubuffet, while the outside of the spiral shows works by international artists influenced by the surrealists. Then the outer gallery walls contain works by Chicago artists, past and present, who show an affinity for surrealism.

What I love about this show is that it reveals how delightfully messy this movement was, like all movements. Not a neat organization of artists following a set of rules, but a wide ranging, far reaching drift of loosely-related practices. You nonetheless emerge with a sense of the strange, dark, fantastical phenomenon that is surrealism, and how its presence can still be felt today.

Then we stopped at Intuit, a center that presents outsider art, which they define as, "the work of artists who demonstrate little influence from the mainstream art world, and who instead are motivated by their unique personal visions." They had up a show of sculptures by Clarence and Grace Woolsey, Iowa farmers who began making figures from their bottle cap collection in the early '60s. The pieces were discovered in a barn after their deaths and found admirers in the outsider art market. The Woolsey's called them "Caparena." And I was compelled by these rusting, charming, discomforting figures, which for me called to mind African figures, like these from 18th to 19th century Congo, in their frontality and totemic quality, as well as playful works like Jeff Koons' "Bunny," drawn from American pop culture.

We also take a peek in the Henry Darger room. The Good Stuff just did an excellent video about Darger that you should watch, but in brief, he's an artist of cult status whose work also wasn't discovered until after his death. He created a whole world of characters and accompanying mythology, and his work is equal parts mesmerizing and super creepy. Here's a re-creation of a room in his apartment, where you can see some of the source material that inspired him, and interesting little details like how he would pour tempera paint into pot lids. And once hardened, use them like little cakes of watercolor.

At Intuit, you really do feel the kind of intense drive and desire to make that has brought all of these works into being it's a palpable desire not only to execute an idea, but to compulsively do it again and again.

We then drove south in the rain to the Stony Island Arts Bank, which opened this past fall, and occupies a former bank that had been vacant for decades. They were in between exhibitions, which made our appreciation of the renovated building all the more profound. It was conceived by The Rebuild Foundation, a not for profit started by artist Theaster Gates that focuses on the creative development of under invested neighborhoods. The bank is now a site for contemporary art exhibitions, a community center, events venue, and also the home to some amazing collections, like the old slide collections of the University of Chicago and Art Institute that they no longer needed once digitized, and the astoundingly beautifully presented magazine and book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of "Ebony" and "Jet" magazines.

It also holds the record collection of DJ Frankie Knuckles, and Edward Williams's fascinating, disturbing collection of what he called negrobilia, racist collectibles he bought to remove them from the market. And there's more to develop, like the old vault in the basement, rusted over by long-sitting flood water. The Arts Bank is warm and open and vibrating with energy, offering the chance for locals and not so locals to engage with narratives of the past and present.

We then made a brief stop at the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, which consistently present engaging and, uh... smart exhibitions. We had the chance to see their current show that wasn't open yet, titled "Monster Roster: Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago." The exhibition brings together works of artists like Leon Golub, June Leaf, Seymour Rosofsky, and Nancy Spero, whose psychologically-charged work shared an interest in the figure in the 1950s when everyone else was thinking about abstraction.

A number of these artists served in World War II, and the intense images of suffering that they presented were seen as processing the horrors of that time, and also led critics to begin calling them the Monster Roster, despite the fact that they didn't identify that way as a group. Anyway, it's dense and dark and dystopian, but in a good way. And I encourage you to see it.

Then just to torture ourselves, we decided to end our day by driving through traffic and torrential rain to the suburbs, to the Elmhurst Art Museum, which was hosting its first biennial of Chicago artists. The show focused on the role of the artist as commentator or activist, engaging with their communities and addressing social and political issues. There was a lot of great work here, thoughtfully presented. But some of my favorites were Edra Soto's Tropical American Flags, one of which we'd seen earlier. Christopher Meerdo's collection of mobile phone photos, obtained from a server via brute force attack. And Cheryl Pope's installation, which she created in collaboration with Chicago students, hoping to, quote, "preserve these voices, and confront the complexities of systems that construct these experiences." I was also happily transported to another world within Lise Haller Baggesen's immersive installation "Mothernism," cleverly activating the Mies van der Rohe-designed McCormick house attached to the museum.

Now, any sane person would not see this much art in a day. But even so, there's a lot we didn't see. We didn't go to the Art Institute, which is sacrilegious. And we didn't go to any commercial galleries, nor did we visit any of Chicago's outdoor art for the obvious seasonal reasons. But on the drive home, as I was processing the tremendous variety of work we saw all by Chicago artists, I kept thinking about what Assaf had said about making art in Chicago and in the Midwest. And as we passed the wind turbines again, this time in the dark, seeing how the network of blinking lights mapped the flat expanse of nothingness, I wondered about what it means to make art in a given place, in any given place. Does the landscape matter? The weather? Or are we all just fumbling around in the dark, concocting stories inside ourselves that only start to make sense when viewed from a distance?