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Barista Creates Artist Collective in Sol Cafe's Basement

By Benjamin Woodard | March 23, 2013 8:40am

ROGERS PARK — A group of neighborhood artists are converting the "grimy" basement of Howard Street's Sol Cafe into a place for painters, seamstresses and metal smiths.

Barista Charles Lee and his customer and friend Taylor Ervin dubbed their movement the Gnar Collective, "Gnar" being an acronym for the "Great Northside Artist Revolution."

Lee, 22, a former student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said the cafe's basement is under construction to be a hub for neighborhood artists to share and critique each other's work.

"We really just want to build a community within ourselves to help the greater community" in Rogers Park, Lee said.

The collective plans to hold a fundraiser Saturday to raise money to renovate Sol's basement, which Lee said looks like a "grimy prohibition bar."

Lee said he adopted philosophies for the collective from the Mess Hall, a counter-culture establishment set to close this month after 10 years in the neighborhood as an inspiration for artists and activists.

It's amazing "what they accomplish, for free," Lee said.

He said he hopes the collective would help "remove the capitalistic component of making money off of art."

Gnar also aligns with other neighborhood coalitions, like Occupy Rogers Park. Two of its 13 members are part of the collective.

Although the group doesn't have a home yet, its members are working with the Rogers Park Business Alliance to participate in a yet-to-be-determined public art installation in the neighborhood.

Lee, 22, said he grew up in a "terrible, terrible little town" north of Detroit and moved to the city in 2010 to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

He quit after a year and a half and got a job at Sol Cafe, which opened in December.

Cafe owner Simone Freeman said Gnar's mission is similar to Sol's. She wanted to create an artistic hub, "a place that's more than just coffee."

In recent months, she's hosted open mics and adorned the cafe's walls with neighborhood art.

When the space below Sol is set up, it would have studios for painters, a space for a seamstress and a metal smith, along with a dark room to develop film, Lee said.

Eventually, he said, the collective plans to start an art publication for writers on newsprint, once they get ahold of an affordable printing press.

Membership to the collective is free, but Lee wants artists who "are willing to invest emotionally" in the collective.

At the fundraiser, planned for 7 p.m. Saturday at Sol, 1615 W. Howard St., members will host a silent auction of stuff donated from different neighborhood groups and artists.

He said the New 400 Theater donated 25 free movie tickets.

Suggested donation for admission is $5, which comes with two tickets for alcoholic beverages.

Wine and champagne cocktails will be served. The Caribbean American Bakery on Howard donated baked goods.

The collective will also sell T-shirts for $1 and will have a screen printing press to add custom designs for $4.

All proceeds go to Gnar, which is not yet a registered nonprofit.

The full Sol Cafe menu will be available at regular price.