Lillstreet Art Center is a Chicago institution situated in a 40,000-square-foot gear factory in Ravenswood. The building is a considerable step up from its former home in a renovated horse barn.
For 45 years, the center has provided education and training in the arts, including metalsmithing, printmaking, textiles, ceramics, jewelry, and more. There are camps, classes, and workshops available for students of every age. Lillstreet rents studios on the second floor to artists, with some of them remaining in the same studio for upwards of a decade. There is a gallery, an artist residency program, and a community outreach scheme.
It also provides an outlet for local Chicago artists to sell their work.
Lillstreet’s shop is on the ground floor and shares the space with the coffee shop First Slice. The store has evolved over time. According to Lillstreet Gallery Shop director Abby Jenkins, the original building had a gallery, and they were able to sell work from the studio artists, serving as the genesis for what exists today. Pottery, jewelry, cards, books, toys, clothing, prints, accessories—what’s in the shop is almost a recreation of what can be made in the center. The shop even has honey from the ten hives kept on the roof, although Jenkins is quick to point out that they are not in the bee business, and there are not (yet) classes at Lillstreet for beekeeping.
The goal of Lillstreet is to make art as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. First-time classes are always available, and new classes are based on student and teacher suggestions. New offerings include a class on pottery as a political object, and visiting artist workshops for feltmaking. These classes are outside the norm of what one would usually experience in an arts course.
Designer Zhenqi Ong has been taking classes at Lillstreet for more than two years, with a focus on ceramics, and can attest to the impact the shop has on her personal work. “You get to experience and share in something local. You’re directly supporting [the artists], and you get inspiration from them for your own projects.”
The products for sale at Lillstreet have value, but they fulfill their true purpose when someone uses them in their day-to-day life, Jenkins says. She is a prime example of this mentality; during our interview, she sports custom earrings from Cat Bowyer, a local Chicago artist and her coworker. “Our focus is on exposing the Chicago community to what is being made within.”
“The owner [Bruce Robbins] has been really passionate about it, because there is a sort of gap between downtown galleries selling pieces for thousands, and there is a level of inaccessibility to that that I think he’s always been aware of,” Jenkins says. “Especially in the ceramics world, there is this subset of people who acknowledge pottery is supposed to be used. It can be figurative and sculptural, but it is a functional object. These people specifically create work at a lower price point because they want people to buy it and use it and have it be a part of their lives.”
Jenkins is able to count 17 Chicago or Lillstreet artists in the store that come from the ceramics department alone. Looking at the mug wall, their ability to retain liquid is the only thing they have in common. They vary in style and design and color, but Jenkins stresses they were all created in a collaborative environment.
“In the ceramics department we do all of our own firing,” Jenkins says. “In order to get your work fired, there is a lot of people who go into it. There is a lot of community to get the work to its final stage. You need other people, and so many people contribute to the work that is coming out of here, even if they are not putting their hands on it to create it. It’s this level of immediate connection to the maker that is something I, even as a customer, have never seen.”
The value of Lillstreet exists in its ability to bring together artists and customers within the same space to provide beautiful, functional art. “I’ve seen the distance growing between customer and creator, so having a place like this where you might not even necessarily know what you’re going to leave with is incredible because you come in and it’s about the discovery,” Jenkins says. “And it’s rare, because it pushes against the ideal is perfection or exact replication of what is familiar.” v