It’s a Saturday morning in River North. Ellen Kamerling and Joanna Pinsky are leading a group of 25 women and a few men around a gallery, and they have stopped in front of a glass object by Bertil Vallien. “Do you see this piece as whimsical?” Kamerling asks the group.

“The canoe shape is phallic,” someone volunteers, “but it could also represent transportation.” A few nod their approval for the sexual theme; others are more taken with the idea of transportation.

Kamerling appears to lay the matter to rest: “Perhaps the piece is a representation of the genetic code. The future is in the past and the past is in the future, it might be saying.”

“Yes,” someone excitedly breaks in, “the shape–the shape is like a space rocket, or a coffin. We can glimpse the past in a rocket–or in a coffin. Maybe.”

At another gallery, the group looks at a huge glob of saran wrap molded by Donald Lipski. Is it supposed to be a giant Christmas tree ornament or a large breast? And what is the meaning of a broken piece of fuselage with a bunch of dice glued on? What is the point of a whitewashed American flag with the pounding light of an operating-room lamp shining on it? “How does the art make you feel?” Kamerling wants to know.

A lawyer tells Pinsky and Kamerling his head hurts because of their questions. “The thought process you’re putting me through is painful,” he says. “It’s too straining –it’s so different than the literal, the logical, the legal that I’m used to.”

Pinsky and Kamerling are artists–Pinsky a shape-canvas artist (she stretches strangely shaped canvases and then applies paint and other materials), Kamerling a sculptor (who currently works with salvaged windows)–and the people they are leading around are members of Art Encounter, the not-for-profit business the two women run. Their mission is to help people uncover meaning in works of art–oils and watercolors, twisted metal, woven cloth, carved wood, and thrown clay.

Like female pied pipers, they lead packs of everyday Chicagoans into the realm of the artist. Together, Kamerling, Pinsky, and hundreds of their devotees traipse to galleries, artists’ studios, and the homes of rich, eccentric art collectors. They go where the art is. And get to know it.

“We teach people to be comfortable with art,” says Kamerling. “The average person thinks if he can’t make art, he doesn’t have valid access to art.”

Says Pinsky, “We teach people not to be afraid of their own thoughts. People walk into galleries, decide whether they like or don’t like something and then say ‘good-bye.’ We use a Socratic method of teaching. We discuss what art is about rather than whether it is good or bad. We develop a person’s visual vocabulary so that they can determine how color, line, and texture, for example, ultimately affect the work’s underlying ideas.”

Art Encounter was conceived in the early 1970s, when the two artists, who were housewives at the time, decided they wanted to get more from life than just watching their Evanston gardens grow. Friends who’d visited galleries with them said they should go into the business of providing commentary for the art illiterate. So they did. For a while, they also provided art education to children and senior citizens–two groups neglected by the traditional settings for art appreciation. They transported art exhibits to schools and retirement homes. They led discussions on what the art was all about. Though they still work with children and seniors, they also coordinate various workshops, panels, and tours for artists, art lovers, collectors–and, of course, the art illiterate.

It is a Wednesday afternoon, and an Art Encounter group is visiting the swanky Streeterville condo of artist Claire Prussian. Coats have been thrown in the bedroom, and people are checking out the decor.

Months before, many in this group visited the Hokin-Kaufman Gallery with Kamerling and Pinsky for a viewing of Prussian’s latest work–garish feminine images adorned with mirrors, feathers, jewels, paint, fingernails, beads, and rhinestones. For the Art Encounter participants, guided in their thoughts by Pinsky and Kamerling, Prussian’s work came to signify the process of women aging and protecting, concealing, and decorating themselves.

The group splits into two smaller ones and the artwork displayed in the artist’s apartment is perused, piece by piece, room by room. The group is aware that many artists are also collectors, and today they have the opportunity to see the artist as consumer.

The group is asked what Prussian’s collection seems to signify about her. What are her preferences? Her aesthetics? Why does the dark, earthy color she has chosen for her living room walls fit in so well with her collection? With who she is? With her own works of art?

“When we visit artists’ studios, so many people ask, ‘Who would buy this art?'” says Kamerling. “So we decided to show people how collectors live with the art we’ve seen being made in the studios and marketed in the galleries.

“Occasionally people in our group, maybe two or three years down the line, will make a purchase,” she adds. “We give people confidence in their ability to appreciate art and then make that purchase.”

Prussian, meanwhile, is getting some unusual feedback: members of the group talk as though she isn’t there. They analyze the art, and they analyze who she is based on her taste in art. But they also have the opportunity to see the interior of her kitchen, the cleanliness of her bathrooms, the texture of her upholstery, and her skyline view. They have gone behind the scenes, beyond the galleries.

Pinsky and Kamerling will give free tours this weekend at Art Expo; call for exact times. The next Art Encounter event, on Wednesday, May 16, will be a discussion given by Prussian and her daughter, artist Mary Bendix, on how they influence each other’s lives and work. The cost for this second of three programs in the “Art Genes” lecture series is $12. (The third discussion will take place on Wednesday, May 30, between artist May Leonard and her daughter, Sarah Krepp.) The next gallery walk will be at 11 AM Saturday, June 8, at the Perimeter Gallery, 750 N. Orleans, where Pinsky currently has work on display. It’s $8, free for members of Art Encounter. Membership in Art Encounter–which costs $30–is mandatory in order to participate in more than one event. For information call 708-328-9222.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.