Best of the South Side 2014 | Beverly

Best Surrealist Duo: Sal Campbell and Sandra Leonard

COURTESY OF THE ARTISTS

This year the theme for the annual Chicago Artists Month (CAM) is  “Crossing Borders.” In a city with so many distinct community areas, the topic seems particularly applicable and the event’s definition of borders includes “actual physical borders, or conceptual, genre or societal boundaries.” The concept has inspired Beverly artists Sal Campbell and Sandra Leonard to host their own event during CAM, entitled  “Crossing into Dream.” The event is a jaunt into surrealist thinking and art that will bring together a variety of artists from Beverly to produce a fashion show “like no other,” to serve as a vibrant indicator of an evolving artistic scene on the southwest side of Chicago.

Just travelling to the studio that Campbell and Leonard share with fellow Beverly artist Carla Winterbottom requires a trek across borders. Perched on the upper floor of a building that was once the Blue Island Opera House and later a movie theater, the studio carries a certain charm from the simple lines of the old building. Although the location is well outside the bounds of Beverly and the city limits, Campbell, Leonard, and Winterbottom have been using the shared space for the past three years to pursue their distinct artistic projects.

Currently, Campbell’s artistic output is concentrated on assemblages: “3D collage, out of found objects,” she explains. Campbell uses a variety of objects in her sculptures, including material from old books and pieces of so-called junk. By design, they combine shapes, colors, and materials that toe the line between the familiar and the unknown. Campbell approaches with a certain sense of wonder objects that could be called ordinary, using found objects like antique foundry plates and old postcards. “I like to mix machinery with hand tools and things that are well-used and well-worn,” she says. “I especially like tools and things that were useful or very common at one time, that now you can look at and say, ‘What is that?’ ”

While Campbell reassembles tools of the recent past, Leonard channels the ethereal and otherworldly in her pieces. Leonard has both a BFA and a MFA in sculpture, and with her costumes she intends to transform the human body into a living sculpture. Leonard draws inspiration “from historical and theatrical couture to create wearable, kinetic art,” resulting in highly unique pieces that may stretch the viewer’s understanding of what the body can wear.

The ensembles that Leonard showed me during my tour of their studio were in keeping with this sculpture motif. They demonstrated her Renaissance influences, with puffy sleeves, ornate pleating, and high, stiff, neck collars getting special attention. Her collection is composed of unusual fabrics—one piece employed a metallic gray cloth that gave the shirt a resemblance to armor—and she is not afraid to mix materials or alter them, even dyeing some to create more interesting colors and patterns.

In her new series, Leonard is striving to make costumes that cover nearly all of her models’ bodies and faces, “combining textures and exaggerated forms, in an attempt to minimize the human element.”  To accomplish this, she makes use of engulfing sleeves, exaggerated collars, and enveloping hats. By reducing the visibility of the model, Leonard hopes to unite the wearer and the costume as one seamless piece of art.

At her studio, Leonard shows me a costume that is still in the works. This particular piece includes a large fabric panel, vaguely tear-shaped, that hangs between the legs of the model. As the model walks, the panel swings forward and backward like a pendulum. When I tell her I have never seen anything like it before, she tells me that neither had she, until she made it.

Her sketchbook is full of pencil drawings that show human figures decked out in the most fanciful shapes; one is even topped with a tall hat that echoes the form of a leaf. Leonard’s imagery takes cues “from nature, absurd animals, and stylized foliage.” With those inspirations, she hopes to suggest “whimsical narratives that draw the viewer into a dream-like landscape.” The fantastical thread running through Leonard’s work is a nod to her background in surrealism, which she says has always influenced her work.

As Campbell and Leonard explain it, the CAM theme of border crossing suits this surrealist impulse. “That’s how we decided on ‘Crossing into Dream’—because dreams are such an obvious subject matter for surrealists,” explains Campbell. The show in October is an opportunity for Campbell and Leonard to work together, with Campbell organizing the event and Leonard displaying work. The media release for the event reminds potential attendees that sometimes “the most powerful borders to be crossed exist within our own minds.” The event positions its venue, the Beverly Arts Center, as another important boundary between neighborhoods.

Beverly is not often cited as one of Chicago’s burgeoning art centers, but the Beverly Arts Center has been operational in a rejuvenated form since 2002 and features a full calendar of classes, film showings, and performances. Still, even Campbell acknowledges the artistic scene’s relative obscurity to the rest of the city. “I wouldn’t have even realized that there was much of an artist community here. It’s really kind of all percolating right now,” she explains, citing the Vanderpoel Art Museum’s one-hundredth anniversary.

Over the past few years Campbell has worked to increase the visibility of local art around Beverly. Recently, Campbell has been working with Horse Thief Hollow, a neighborhood restaurant, to install art displays and to create a place for Beverly artists to display their work. The art scene that is developing in Beverly does not necessarily fit into common tropes about starving young artists—like Campbell and Leonard, most Beverly artists are solidly adults, with careers and homes in the neighborhood. However, the scene is not lacking in energy.

The effort behind the fashion show is particularly community-driven, and Campbell and Leonard are enlisting the support of other Beverly artists. The fashion show also features artists Alan Emerson Hicks and Courtney L. Schneider; Hicks “creates complex structures of found objects and societal detritus” in his art, and Schneider is a designer whose work employs satire to address social issues.

The Chicago Artists Month’s city-wide push to cross borders offers an ideal moment to share the art-making that is happening past 99th Street, and in next month’s show Campbell and Leonard will urge audiences to consider not only the physical boundaries of their city but also the more abstract borders within their own minds. Attendees are encouraged to wear their own surrealist attire to complete the journey.

Crossing into Dream: A Surrealist Fashion Show, Performance and Party will take place on October 10 at the Beverly Arts Center, where the reception will kick off at 6:30pm. 

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