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Eye Exam: SHoP Closing

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By Lee Colon

A “For Sale” sign stood significantly on the Fenn House’s lawn as guests trickled in on Saturday, May 26, to see what may be the Southside Hub of Production’s denouement at the eighteen-room Victorian mansion in Hyde Park. The opening for the affectionately titled exhibition, “On Making Things Matter: Strategies for Preservation,” curated by Laura Shaeffer, John Preus and Alberto Aguilar, marks a crossroads for the organization, which has established a successful art and community center in the historic residence under a year-long lease. As the neighboring First Unitarian Church, the property’s owner, seeks a buyer, SHoP’s members and friends celebrate a fruitful sojourn and, just in case, bid a dynamic farewell. 

What is fixed in SHoP’s future is this: the relationships and pedagogical programs established at the Fenn House will continue with the support of its committed organizers. The show, however, dwells on the memories contained within materials. Objects line the walls, invoking an archive throughout the house. Installation artist Alberto Aguilar’s “Object Reservation” fills the library with shelved white mementos and sound bites from their owners, imbuing the space with physical sentimentality. Upstairs, Edra Soto and Dan Sullivan’s carefully displayed clay shells echo Aguilar’s archival approach. Feeling the effects, I pocketed as a keepsake a bit of ephemera—a handwritten note to volunteers with a scrawled response that I found tucked inside a drawer.

Teresa Pankratz mines this same impulse to memorialize in “Dream House Collection,” an installation of encased objects surrounded by a written narrative about a fire in a family home and the artifacts that remain, salvaged and cared for by its survivors. Pankratz has painstakingly created some of these relics to radiate with a timeworn patina. The artist will read her narrative on Saturdays, starting June 2. The exhibition, however, does not wallow in nostalgia, as was evident in the most popular corner of the mansion, which approached physical remembrance through digital imaging technology. Viewers were invited to create a tiny likeness, and men with infants strapped to their chest peered over the tussled hair of college students as a 3D model of a woman’s head emerged layer by layer into an uncanny and brightly colored resemblance.

Fifty feet away, the living room snugly housed a wooden amphitheatre built by the woodshop’s director, Erik Peterson. The structure acted as a forum for discussion as an organizer asked participants, “What makes a scene meaningful instead of dross?” Community members can sign up to use the amphitheatre for anything they like throughout the summer.

In light of the question posed in the amphitheatre, the scene resembled many an opening, with a slightly more diverse crowd; attendees—an inordinate number of them bearded—stood blocking the narrow hallways, while other guests weaved through the clusters, cocktails and toddlers in hand. Yet, amid the guests and organizers in attendance, a seed of hope persisted that something extraordinary might happen to allow SHoP to maintain its stay. Among the possibilities, a donor could step in and buy the mansion on SHoP’s behalf. The First Unitarian Church could take down its “For Sale” sign and renew the organization’s lease. The University of Chicago, the building’s most likely buyer, could extend an offer to Shaeffer, Preus and the rest of the hub’s members.

Creative director Shaeffer, for her part, maintains a level-headed optimism. If allowed to stay, she imagines a show tentatively titled “Object Permanence,” for which she would invite artists to create projects that would remain in the space for a full year. These objects would furnish the Fenn House, finally allowing SHoP to engage in a nesting process not possible up to this point. In the meantime, Shaeffer is directing her efforts toward the Teacher’s Lounge, a collaborative endeavor with Jim Duignan focused on realizing community art projects. While currently housed within the Fenn House, Shaeffer hopes this venture has legs to move, if necessary.

Through July 15 at the Southside Hub of Production, 5638 South Woodlawn 

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