All three of the founders of the Chicago Art Department teach for a living, but, says Mike Nourse, “We’re not convinced that taking classes that fit into a larger curriculum that leads you to a degree is the best method of developing art skills.”

Nourse teaches video art and digital photography at DePaul and the School of the Art Institute. Nat Soti, his partner in the design firm Zero One, is a part-time art prof at DePaul as well. Nathan Peck teaches computer art at Saint Xavier. The three of them came up with the idea for their informal school, launched in January, last fall at a monthly meeting at the two-story Transamoeba loft, a near-south-side collective where the three have studio space alongside a jewelry designer, a construction company, and several other artists.

“We were talking about what this place could be,” says Peck. “It could be a cool bar, a nightclub, cool for raves, whatever. People kept throwing out ideas. Then someone said, ‘You could put a school in here,’ and everyone chuckled. Then we were like, ‘Whoa, whoa, you certainly could.’ It kept coming up.” After a while, he says, “we had to decide–should we do it or should we keep coming up with ideas and never do anything about them?”

They spent a few late nights hammering out a syllabus for a 15-week pilot program, and handpicked the first group of 13 students. Several come from their college classes; the others include a bartender, an interior decorator, and a culinary school graduate. The program’s modeled on martial arts schools, which allow students to work at their own pace and share their knowledge with each other. “This environment is not a class where you sign up and have a midterm and a final,” he says. “You come when you can, and learn as much as you can, and your progress up the educational ladder is dictated by you and not so much by us.”

Transamoeba has a shared performance space, ten computer workstations, and traditional art supplies such as paints, canvases, and musical instruments. In the first five weeks the students were taught different techniques: traditional and digital painting, Photoshop, video editing. “Right now the equipment in the space is all of our personal stuff that we use,” says Nourse. “We’re literally opening up what we own to the students.”

Initially the students did a series of exercises in various media loosely based on the theme “love it or leave it.” Some of the results were exhibited at the DJ bar Sonotheque last month. In recent weeks they’ve been working on projects for this weekend’s open house like an interactive digital piece that’ll use color to chart the mood of a room and a multimedia “totem pole” made of video monitors showing their work. The last few weeks of the class, which ends in mid-May, will be devoted to documenting the work and figuring out what to do next, whether that’s burning DVDs and CDs or trying to get shows at other venues. “We’re trying to mix real-world experience with a regular art-school type of education,” says Soti.

Students paid just $35 to take the course, and chipped in an additional $30 each to cover promotional expenses for the open house. Along the way they made some invaluable connections, says Peck. “One of the guys here [Caton Volk] started Buddy and has been running alternative art spaces for a while. I could bring him to my class [at Xavier] and he could smile and shake hands with my students, but it’s not enough to really know him. Whereas when you spend every Sunday for 15 weeks with someone, they’re on your cell phone.”

In the future, the trio–who’ll show raw footage from a short video documentary they’re making about the class at the open house–hope to secure funding for the project and eventually move it to another location so that the school can grow. They probably won’t hold another session until the fall, and they’re not sure what form the class will take next, but one thing that won’t change is the name. “We joked about it,” says Soti. “If you have a fire department and a police department, why can’t we have an art department?”

The Chicago Art Department open house runs Friday and Saturday, April 23 and 24, from 7 PM to midnight at Transamoeba, 1325 S. Wabash, suite 101. Demonstrations and performances are at 8 and 11; there’s a suggested donation of $5. Call 312-286-8655.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.