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Artist Nick Cave Wows Community With Plans for Studio on Milwaukee Avenue

Nick Cave at Work
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YouTube/Open Media Foundation

IRVING PARK — Milwaukee Avenue was once home to a thriving manufacturing district and it could be again, but instead of churning out football helmets, one new tenant has plans to make art.

Chicago artist Nick Cave, head of the fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is buying the building at 3618-3622 N. Milwaukee Ave., with the intent of turning it into a shared studio/gallery/apartment where he can live and work.

Boring zoning meetings? Patty Wetli explains that couldn't be further from the truth:

To do that, he needs a zoning change from manufacturing to commercial, a switch that members of the Irving Park community and Ald. John Arena (45th) seemed more than willing to grant after listening to a presentation from Cave earlier this week.

 Artist Nick Cave proposes to turn a former manufacturing site into a studio/gallery/living space.
Turning Manufacturing Into Art
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What Cave, who's been mentioned in the same breath as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Banksy, has in mind is something far more ambitious in scope than the typical artist's loft.

The 23,000-square-foot building would become home to what Cave called a "concentrated project space" where he could stage performance art pieces and also create the Soundsuits — wearable life-size sculptures — for which he is best known.

Soundsuits, which defy easy description, incorporate found objects and have been characterized as "part Alexander McQueen, part Andy Warhol and wholly bizarre, brash and beautiful," combining "elements of sound, performance, color and costume."

Cave is also carving out room for the design studio of Bob Faust, who frequently collaborates with the artist on special projects. Faust creates products around Cave's work, which has been shown around the world. Sharing the same physical space would allow for "more synergy" between the two, according to Faust.

An additional component: Three "small, intimate" storefronts that would house continuously changing creative enterprises, from pop-up shops to exhibits, including the potential for joint projects with Schurz High School, just across the street.

Cave said he expects to occupy the building in a year or a year and a half.

"It will be a destination where you know something amazing is going to be happening — not any one thing, but always amazing," said Faust. "It will be a reason to make the trip" from the Loop.

"As you're going to work, there may be 20 'horses' running down the street that I've fabricated," said Cave, whose background also includes a stint with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. "We may be working with video artists and you could see their videos from the street."

Cave and Faust have been hunting for a shared space for nearly two years. Part of the appeal of the building on Milwaukee Avenue is the neighborhood's interest in and support for the arts.

"We walked into the alderman's office and there was art on the wall," said Cave.

Added Faust: "There's a like-mindedness here that we didn't know about."

Faced with a number of dormant properties in his ward, Arena views the arts as a way to move the neighborhood forward.

"We can't keep looking back," he said of the long-gone manufacturing heyday. "How do we continue the story? How do we use our spaces better than what we're doing now?"

Cave's proposal, particularly the flexible storefronts, would generate interest in the area, creating a ripple effect that could lure people not just to an exhibit at the studio but also to dinner in the neighborhood and shopping at Six Corners, said Arena.

"I'm looking for ways to have a big impact," he said.

Neighbors sole concern was that the change to commercial, or "C," zoning could open the door to an undesirable operation when or if Cave moves on.

"C zoning can be very corrosive," said Howard Silver, a member of the Old Irving Park Association's zoning committee.

Other uses allowed under the commercial designation sought by Cave include warehouses and auto shops.

Cave's attorney, Stephen Stults, explained that the zoning would be tied to the specific plan submitted by his client.

"You will not get other uses," said Stults. "Only another artist could come in."

With that lone quibble addressed, residents expressed their enthusiasm for the proposal.

"You've lit up our Facebook page," Anna Zolkowski Sobor, OIPA president, told Cave. "We've been talking up this area of the city for decades. You'll find us very welcoming and also very appreciative."

Arena had called the community meeting in order to identify any challenges to Cave's plans. Hearing none, he concluded the evening by saying, "We'll introduce this to council as an affirmative."