The PO Box Collective, a new social practice-oriented community group, held a space-warming event in February at its Rogers Park headquarters (the site of a former USPS post-office-box center). The nineteen-member collective invited the neighborhood to come, have a bowl of soup and write on the walls their desires and dreams for what they’d like to see at the new community space.
“Ever since the closing of Mess Hall—which was on Glenwood Avenue, too—Beyond Media and Heartland most recently, people wrote on the walls things that don’t exist in Rogers Park anymore, in terms of a social practice art space and a community center,” co-founder Meredith Zielke says. “Everything that they wrote on the walls, we’re trying to, over time, program.”
Zielke and Salome Chasnoff, both working artists and professors, signed a lease on the location on the corner of Farwell and Glenwood in December. “Part of the spirit that Salome and I brought to the signing of the lease was that it was a risk, but we had faith that the community would come, including the members,” Zielke says.
“A lot of people refer to spaces like this as ‘third space.’ So not home, not work, but this other space in your life that feels just as safe if not safer, and it’s really a place of human expression,” Chasnoff says. “Whenever we’re making things together, we’re remaking each other in a way. That’s, I think, what’s happening here for us as collective members.”
The collective’s programming will be responsive to things happening in Chicago and the world at large. July programming focused on reproductive justice and bodily autonomy, which was partly in response to the barrage of anti-abortion legislation that has been cropping up across the country. On one afternoon, local artist Rachel Wallis hosted a drop-in sewing circle for the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls’ Clemency Quilt project. The Wandering Uterus Project hosted workshops for participants to craft a uterus out of fibers; many of the pieces went up on the walls as part of that month’s exhibition.
Chasnoff stresses that PO Box does not operate using a conventional gallery model. The collective practices radical hospitality throughout their programming, and welcomes folks who don’t necessarily identify as artists to show work. “There’s nothing precious about what we put on our walls,” Chasnoff says.
Fall programming at the space is the most ambitious yet. September’s theme focused on cultural composting, with the intention of helping people connect to existing resources. Artist Molly Costello, for example, hosted a seed share, which helps build secure, healthful and sustainable food systems.
“It is really about how to recognize and embrace plenitude, sufficiency in what’s already here and the possibilities of it,” Chasnoff says.
October’s exhibition, “Found: Love Letters of Muslim Resistance and Community,” opens October 6. For this programming, collective member Mary Zerkel is collaborating with StopCVE Chicago, which works to counter and resist policies used to criminalize Muslims, and American Friends Service Committee-Chicago, which will serve as co-sponsors.
“We’re at the beginning of a ramped-up election cycle,” Zerkel says. “Whereas we saw in 2016, anti-Muslim rhetoric was horrible and there were all kinds of personal consequences for people. I think we’re at the beginning of that. So this is a great opportunity to both invite the Muslim community of Rogers Park, which there are many people, to be part of something in this space, but also to highlight the creativity, the things that you don’t ordinarily see in the media about the community.”
Programming includes a training of countering anti-Muslim racism, a screening of Assia Boundaoui’s “The Feeling of Being Watched” and a fiber workshop led by CEW Design Studio and other local refugee women sewing co-ops.
A group photo exhibition, “Cuba Si! Bloqueo No!,” organized with HotHouse, opens November 3, coinciding with a citywide resolution to normalize relations with Cuba. December will bring the collective’s first artist-in-residence, William Estrada, who will host community printing projects throughout the month.
For collective members, fostering mutual growth for themselves and the community and working against the toxic negativity that is such a presence in today’s realities are crucial.
“I’m thinking about scarcity and precarity,” Chasnoff says. “And this neighborhood has seen ever-decreasing public spaces that can be shared. So a scarcity of space, open, accessible space. Also precarity, the danger that many of our community feel because of the different political things going on, that’s maybe the foundation of everything proactive and positive that we’re doing.”
Collective member Amy Partridge agrees. “The sense of scarcity and precarity—and I’ll speak for myself—but it’s probably true that it penetrates all of our lives in really real ways,” she says. “In addition to these beautiful moments where our neighbors meet each other and we begin to build community just through sharing space together, I definitely think it meets my needs as well. When I heard from Meredith and Salome that they had signed the lease, I thought, ‘Oh my god, finally!’ Because we can again have a place where those calm times that are outside of scarcity and precarity can have some space for us to build and know each other.”
Zielke hopes PO Box moves beyond concepts like scarcity, survival and tolerance. “I feel like PO Box is a space that moves past those words and talks about skill sharing. The food [we provide at events] is not to keep people alive, it’s about thriving. It’s about skill sharing and resource sharing and loving each other.”