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Feature Mon Mar 03 2008
Erik Newman, a 43 year-old Chicago-based artist, lives alone in one of the city's last cheap loft spaces, hidden in a nook of a warehouse on the near West Side. To enter, you'll need to call him on his cell phone and then wait for him to come downstairs and open the mechanized gate topped with barbed wire. Once inside the warehouse, you'll step into a workshop crammed full of tools, the remnants of old projects and wood waiting for a purpose. Just beyond the shop area, Newman has crafted a living space that's cheap, eco-friendly and chock-full of storied objects, including furniture he built himself, pieces of a boat he's constructing, a collection of screen-printed posters, and a fake leg (it came with a used car he once bought). The cozy, eclectic interior belies the fact that it was once a raw warehouse space.
There is an accompanying photo essay which you may jump to here.
"Haven't been kicked out yet," he says with a half-smile, knocking on a wooden drawer for luck. His life here began in the mid-1990s, when he and three friends wanted a place to create -- and live -- on an artist's income. They found the building by word-of-mouth, and when they went to check it out, Newman says the landlord warned them that it wasn't designated as a living space. "We told him we were just going to use it for working," Newman says. "But that we'd work 24 hours a day." After a few years of living together, he and the other roommates parted ways, but Newman stayed in the building and moved into his own, smaller loft in the same warehouse.
The space presents some unusual challenges. Without running water, Newman keeps a "dry kitchen" by filling a water dispenser in the common restroom at the end of the corridor and using a two-bucket system for washing and rinsing dishes. For a while he tallied his water usage every day, scribbling a note whenever he had to go out for a refill. (Yeah, he sometimes pees in a jar -- which his grandmother calls "the Thunder Mug".) And then, to make up for a lack of kitchen cabinets, there's the "vertical pantry," a clear plastic tarp with binder clips attached. The clips hold items like bags of spices, rice and pasta. Newman feels it suits him better than a traditional pantry. "I used to forget what I owned," he says. "I needed a system where I could see everything at once."
Up front in the wood shop, Newman constructs the many projects that keep him busy full-time. Most recently, he built a Rube Goldberg-like machine for Contraption, a play by The Neo-Futurists that required a large, working device to be assembled onstage by the actors each night. At the moment, he's building two boats (one of which is a 14-foot geodesic design that will weigh just 20 pounds) for "Guerilla Flotilla," an annual gathering of like-minded artists who create floating art objects, including remote-controlled beavers, rafts made from water jugs, and anything that you won't find at your basic boatyard. Newman proudly displays the title and license for a previous year's homemade catamaran -- official-looking papers for a craft listed as the "Aquacat."
Originally from the Chicago area, Newman began building go-karts, push carts and windmills at an early age with his grandfather's tools. Later, as a young adult, he began traveling the country, driving around in a truck "that looked a little like a World War II German ice cream truck," and working intermittently as a furniture maker. The art of making furniture came so naturally that he felt no hurry to finish the undergraduate degree he'd begun at the IIT Institute of Design. "People were always telling me to just finish my bachelor's," Newman says. "But I was just working and doing what I loved." After ten years of intermittent coursework, he finished his degree and now teaches at the School of the Art Institute.
Chicago artists receive little institutional support and must constantly innovate in order to survive independently, Newman says, citing InCUBATE and Mess Hall as examples of groups working without grants. For him, such a cheap live/work space makes it all possible -- and it's a luxury that's dying out fast in Chicago. "I'm real lucky to have this place," he says, and knocks on the wooden drawer again.
Within the next five to ten years, Newman says he'd like to start working on an even larger project, one that may eventually mean a move to someplace less urban.
"I want to convert an entire industrial building into something habitable," he says. "But that's hard to do in this city."
About the Authors:
Lindsay Muscato is a Gapers Block staffer who escaped from a toaster fire in Buffalo, NY at the age of four. She now lives in a slanty shanty in Andersonville, has written and performed with Around the Coyote and 2nd Story, and she's the managing director of The Neo-Futurists. Read her scribblings at lindsayliveshere.org.
David Schalliol is Managing Editor of Gapers Block and a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago. Visit his website, metroblossom, and that flickr place for more information about his projects or to inquire about purchasing prints.