- Aimee Levitt
- Christopher Shoup shows off the piece he took into two museums last year.
Of all the millions of kids who love messing around with crayons and dream of becoming artists someday, only a small fraction will continue messing around with charcoal and oil paints through high school and college. Only a small fraction of those will reject more remunerative options and pursue careers as artists. And still, there are thousands more artists than there are places in gallery shows, let alone museums. With odds like that, talent is beside the point. There are probably hundreds of young artists who have more raw talent than Jeff Koons. But nobody is paying $58.4 million for their work, as an anonymous buyer did for Koons’s “Balloon Dog (Orange)” last week, or putting it in museums.
Christopher Shoup is one of the thousands who continue to make art in obscurity. Growing up in tiny Banfield, Illinois, the only subject he enjoyed at school was art. At Columbia College, living with other art students, he felt he had discovered his tribe. He wrote zines and bound books. “I connected with Miró,” he says. “Artists were people who were reinventing themselves. I envisioned becoming a big American artist.”
Instead, he became a schoolteacher. These days, he lives in Bradley, near Kankakee, and teaches gifted fifth graders. He continues to make art in his spare time. His goal is to sell enough work at art fairs to be able to make more art. But about five years ago, he became obsessed with the idea of getting his work into a major museum. He was pretty sure it wouldn’t happen the regular way, so he would have to resort to guerrilla methods: strapping art to his back and walking into a museum.
That was a year ago. He’s still not famous.
The museum stunt was meant to draw attention to another project Shoup was working on: Project Job Creation, a sort of pyramid scheme in which people around the world would have a “job” selling Shoup’s art for 40 percent of the proceeds. (It was also a parody of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s earnest election-season promises to create more jobs.) Shoup and his wife, Amanda, sent out mailings describing the project to 100 museums and editors. They placed an ad in the New York Times. Although they received a few polite notes of acknowledgment, no one actually wanted a job. But maybe they would if they’d actually heard of him.
So last November 20, the Shoups drove up to Chicago. Christopher strapped on one of his pieces onto his back. (It was a two-foot-by-two-foot tessellation, or tiled repetition of a photo he’d taken of the roof of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Kankakee.) Then he walked into the Museum of Contemporary Art. Amanda took pictures.
“I was in for 15 minutes,” he says. “Then I saw the security people on the phones, and I knew they were going to kick us out.”
At the Art Institute, the piece never made it into the galleries; he was asked to check it at the entrance. But outside the museums, people treated him like art. “Not one person thought I was ridiculous,” he says proudly. In Grant Park, high school kids asked him for his autograph.
Afterward, he called the museums to tell them about his stunt. But neither responded. “They’re guarded,” he theorizes. “They don’t want people walking around with art on their backs.”
The museum stunt did not make Shoup famous. He thinks it got lost in the shuffle of the Internet. Project Job Creation, much like job-creation projects in the wider world, ground to a halt.
Since then, he’s been working on other projects. He designed beer labels for a brewery in Kankakee, all based on the legend of Medusa. (The brewery dismissed his original conception as “too Greek.”) Over the summer he took his work to art fairs. He’s been applying for grants. Lately he’s been drawn to conceptual art. He’s inspired by the husband-and-wife team of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
“Christo begins with a concept,” he says, “and then he makes a drawing and promotes it. There’s general interest and money. He operates outside the grant system. There’s self-sufficiency.
“I’m past the threshold of giving up,” he continues. “I find nobility in the pursuit, in what drives you. But I would love to give a talk about the day, like a TED talk, with images. I would like to do a booklet. I would love to have Wikipedia page, a document of this day.”