Friday, January 16, 2009

The Artist's Studio: Nancy Charak

As part of my research on artists' studios, I visit artists working in the studio setting and ask them about their materials, methods, practices, and approach to life. The emphasis of these forays is to examine the studio setting and how the artist functions and creates art in that space.

On one of the coldest days of the year in Chicago, I ventured out to visit a trio of artists in the Cornelia Arts Building in the Roscoe Village area. Nancy Charak makes drawings and paintings and works in a 300-sf space. Her neighbors, Darrell Roberts and Johannah Silva, both painters, share a 400-sf studio (their separate blogs will appear after Nancy's).

When I got to the corner of Ravenswood and Cornelia,I decided to park on the side street on Ravenswood just west of the El (the elevated train) and promptly got stuck in the foot-high snow. I eventually arrived at the loading dock of the Cornelia Arts Building, and I encountered a locked door with instructions on the keypad. I followed the instructions and tried to locate Nancy's name, and everything came up as gibberish on the screen, perhaps because of the extreme cold. I looked for my phone to call her and in some mysterious way, the phone I had just used to call her to tell her I was going to be late had disappeared. I dialed a random number on the key pad and someone answered, and I said I was there to see Nancy but didn't know her code, and I was freezing to death and to please let me in. Coincidentally, when I finally entered the building, Nancy had just come down the stairs.

Nancy said although the building had recently installed a new heating system, there is still no wi-fi, which the artists have been asking for, as well as no air conditioning, which can be a problem during the summer. She said that the Cornelia Arts Building is very affordable in the city; her 300-sf studio, which has no windows, is about $1.25 per square foot with heat included. There are three floors in the building, and each studio has a different configuration with enclosed walls and a locked door, but the studios have open ceilings. There is a shared slop sink in the hallway on each floor. As someone who has a full-time day job in another profession, she spends about 20 hours a week in her studio, which she has occupied for the past 5 years. She normally works in her studio in the evenings and weekends.

Nancy said she enjoys the camaraderie of the more than 40 artists in the building, which has housed art studios for the past 20 years. She added that the artists are planning a self-organized open house in March or April this year. Typically, they participate in the annual ArtWalk Ravenswood every October during Chicago Artists Month as well as the first weekend in December for an annual holiday show. They do not hold open studios during the summer because of the air conditioning issue.

Nancy generally uses colored drawing pencils, pastels, and acrylic paints in her drawings and paintings. Her materials are stored in organized containers on shelving, which she has installed, and on three small tables: one for her computer, another for drawing, and another for miscellaneous work. At the far end of studio, she hangs her work on the wall and has crisscrossed string overhead, where she can hang white boards to act as reflectors / deflectors for photographing her work. She has a large storage rack on one side of the wall to store her finished work.

Her studio practices: "I work just about every weekend day, starting early and ending late and as many evenings as I have the strength to do after an 8-hour day-job work day. I go to the Harold Washington library to read art books that are in the reserved stacks about two or three times a month. I have good internet access and some bits of spare time at my day-job, which allows me to do some emailing and publicity type work during the 40-hour work week. As for my art-making practices and processes, I play music, lately alternating between modern klezmer by Dave Krakauer and Scottish acid-rock by Shooglenifty. I have learned that time not spent making art, but organizing a pile or just sitting and reading is still a good thing, because I'm still in my creative space. I also enjoy talking to my fellow artists in the building, from whom I have learned a lot about art, art practice, processes, safe criticism."

"I see art as a series of visual problems asking to be defined and not necessarily to be solved; in simplest terms, how much is enough, when is it done, is more needed, another color, another line, what should that color be, how thin, how thick, how many, how much, how flat, how full, is this artwork about the edge or the center and when is it finished. As I work I am making what seem to be a thousand million decisions while trusting my hand, eye and years of experience. I am always looking at the work of other artists for two big reasons, for the sheer joy of it and to see how other artists are defining their visual problems. I am in constant dialogue with the work of other artists. I stand on the shoulders of giants.

"My function as an artist is not to tell the truth—it is to captivate viewers for as long as I can hold their attention. It is not necessary for the artwork to be any more than what it is. What is necessary is for the art to flow from inside and to allow the paintings and drawings to spring from my entire set of experiences and sensibilities as an artist.

"My current favorite giants, to name just the women, are Agnes Martin and Joan Mitchell for the purity of their thought and action on the canvas; Linda Karshan, Sandra Blow, Vija Celmins, and Katherina Grosse. Whether what they do is lyrical, expository or just plain brash to my way of thinking they are all pure abstract expressionists who make marks, lines, shapes, colors on paper,canvas, even buildings, and say to us, 'here look at this, make of it what you will.'”

Nancy Charak. Babylon II. 2008.
Acrylic, pencil, Prismacolor on acrylic-primed
masonite panel, 24" x 30".

Nancy's recent exhibits include: Marks in Time and Space, solo exhibit, Fred P. Giles Gallery, Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, KY, 2008; October Members' Show, ARC Gallery, Chicago, 2008; Artwalk Ravenswood, Cornelia Arts Building, 1800 West Cornelia, Chicago, for Chicago Artists Month, 2008; Art Open, Chicago Artists Coalition, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, 2008; Drawing on Experience, solo exhibit, Woman Made Gallery, Chicago; Resonance, solo exhibit, University Center Gallery, University of Montana, Missoula, MT; Art on the Move, studio visit, Art Institute of Chicago.

Nancy Charak. I Took Some Lines to the Circus.
2008. Pencil, Prismacolor on acrylic-primed
masonite panel, 24" x 30"

Nancy Charak. Dragon's Teeth. 2008.
Pencil, Prismacolor on acrylic-primed
masonite panel, 24" x 30"

For more about Nancy Charak and her art, go to and

Credits: Art images labeled with the artist's name were provided by the artist, and all other photos were provided by Amy A. Rudberg, unless otherwise indicated.

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