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Art Fri Feb 15 2013

Tiny Roman Susan Gallery's Rogers Park Art Injection

RomanSusanLlama.jpg
Oasis, 2013, fiber and paper, Kate Arford and Kristin Abhalter" photo by Nathan Smith

By Troy Pieper

What may be the city's smallest commercial art gallery has taken up residence in a mixed use building near the Loyola Red Line stop. The 200-square foot space has an unfamiliar shape. Its floor is sunk several feet below street-level, the gallery's six walls of various lengths join at odd angles, the bathroom door is three steps above everything. "It's perfect," says founder and director Kristin Abhalter. Named for her grandparents, "a creative force that was incredibly supportive of me," the Roman Susan gallery has a mission to be a similar force in the Rogers Park neighborhood and in the arts in Chicago.

On the Day of the Dead last year, Roman Susan opened its door to what Abhalter describes as a bustling Rogers Park art community. When she noticed the for-rent sign, she had already been thinking about establishing a public destination in her neighborhood to show art and simply connect to residents and local artists. In the age of social media, physical spaces open to everyone are essential to engaging residents in their community and warding off the degradation of networks that provide personal contact with like-minded individuals.

And already, the gallery seems to be building a name for itself doing just that. Artists from Rogers Park and around Chicago have exhibited work at Roman Susan, and the number of visitors to the gallery continues to increase. The building at 1224 W. Loyola Ave., also home to a hodgepodge of eccentric specialty shops, sees considerable foot traffic. Residents like 70-year-old Kate Walsh, a practicing dancer, stop on the way to the train and chat with Abhalter about art or Rogers Park history, and some have shown their work at Roman Susan.

oasis_katearford.jpgIt is clear that Abhalter's intent is to build something more than a social center. The gallery's first two exhibitions — group shows curated by Abhalter — were clearly the work of a savvy director. They made sense thematically, included at least two outstanding works and were accompanied by events that centered on the work. And, not to be overlooked, several pieces in each show were sold.

But it's as much a community space as a proprietary art gallery can be. Abhalter has created an environment so inviting that some artists, like Millicent Bradliegh, have completed their exhibition pieces in the gallery, for a change from their studio and to talk with Abhalter. Bradleigh finished the excellent Oxygena, a disintegrating quilt on which she'd embroidered dedications she has collected from dozens of books she's read over years.

Truly, a space as strange as Roman Susan begs to be used unconventionally. Abhalter invites artists to submit work that interacts with the space and is planning an exhibition in summer of site-specific work. For Oasis, opening today, Peanut Gallery co-founder Kate Arford collaborated with Abhalter to turn the gallery into a natural history museum-sized diorama of a fiber art llama in a psychedelic habitat.

Oasis Window Installation
Kate Arford & Kristin Abhalter
Roman Susan Gallery, 1224 W. Loyola Ave.
Feb. 15-March 15, 2013
Reception Saturday, Feb. 16 at 5pm.

Second photo courtesy of Roman Susan Gallery

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