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Gallery in Old Funeral Home the 'Shot in the Arm' Heart of Chicago Needs

By Chloe Riley | November 18, 2013 9:36am
  Chicago artists Liz Born and Gabe Hoare have converted the funeral home into a gallery and studio space.
Hoofprint Workshop
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HEART OF CHICAGO — As artist Liz Born pulled a box of leftover makeup from a cabinet at a former funeral home, she mused on how the embalming room has been the perfect space to deal with some of the heavier chemicals used in printmaking. 

“This is our favorite. It says ‘Angel Face,’” Born, 24, said, fingering an antique powder compact. “Printmaking is really collaborative so it takes more than one person to do a lot of the processes. Usually you have a buddy, so it hasn’t gotten too creepy yet.”

Born and fellow printmaker Gabe Hoare moved into the former funeral home at 2433 S. Oakley St. in early October. Rechristened Hoofprint Workshop, the studio and gallery space celebrates a hands-on, tactile approach to printmaking.

The two were pointed to the space by longtime Pilsen artist John Himmelfarb who had worked with Hoare on various projects after he moved to Pilsen four years ago.

In 2011, a businessman by the name of Keith Alessi bought the funeral home, along with several other dilapidated Heart of Chicago properties, in an effort to pump new commerce into the neighborhood. The funeral home, whose building dates to 1900, had its final wake last year after being a longtime fixture on the street full of Italian restaurants and businesses.

Himmelfarb said he knew Alessi was looking to get more arts-related businesses into those properties and so when he heard about Hoare’s need for a space, something clicked.

“It livens up a building that might have sat vacant for a long time,” Himmelfarb said. “With Keith coming in, it’s going to give the neighborhood a shot in the arm.”

Born agreed.

“It’s going to be great to get more people into this neighborhood,” Born said.  "I feel like a lot of people, even in [nearby] Pilsen, don’t know that this exists.”

Born and Hoare said they’re waiting to get some more money so they can create a Hoofprint sign in the same style as the old funeral home one, which lights up at night and can be seen up and down Oakley Street.

In the upstairs office, fake Renoir paintings and crystal chandeliers remain. In the office’s desk drawer are old documents and mementos, including funeral director I.D.’s from the 90s, inked up embalming authorization stamps and bright orange funeral car stickers.

Down in the basement — the former family waiting area which Hoare and Born have dubbed “The Lodge” — the wood-paneled walls are lined with colorful prints, hanging just feet away from the former embalming room.

“We need some beer steins and taxidermy down here,” Hoare said of the log cabin décor.

Hoare, 28, has worked at New York’s Robert Blackburn Workshop and also had a stint at Tandem Press in Madison, Wis. Born, who attended the School of the Art Institute for printmaking, said it’s been important to them to keep an eye out for emerging talent in the Pilsen art scene.

Appropriately, an artist who grew up in one of Chicago’s oldest Chicago funeral homes will be the featured artist in their December show on Friday the 13th.

Vanessa Rago, who goes by the artist name Vanessa DellaMorte, is the granddaughter of John Rago, who started Rago Brothers Funeral Home in 1917 with his brother.

DellaMorte, literally meaning “of death,” said she grew up in a household where her mother routinely took her on the city’s ghost tours and her grandfather kept her up late at night with stories of his favorite Chicago haunts.

Her pencil drawings and prints are filled with hearses, graveyards and morbid tributes to the deceased.   

“I just can’t get away from funeral homes,” she said. “I think everyone has this obsession with death but in my case it’s kind of an extreme obsession.”