Act Five of a ten-part series.
Read the Intro here with links to the entire series. Read Act One here. Read Interlude One here. Read Act Two here. Read Interlude Two here. Read Act Three here. Read Interlude Three here. Read Act Four here. Read Staff Profile One here.
The Fine Arts Building’s managers aren’t sure exactly how many studios there are, estimating the number to be somewhere between 175 and 190. The artist spaces in the 200,000-square-foot building have been modified so many times—combined or cut up as tenants grow or get smaller—that even the engineers don’t know which partition walls are original.
Counting the artists working within these walls, or surveying their artistic disciplines, might be equally futile: some of them share space, others are employed by the leaseholders, many simply come to the building for lessons or collaboration. Also, many are multihyphenates. Cecilia Beaven (studio 915), for example, paints, draws, animates, makes movies and sculpts. And of course, tenants move in and out almost every month.
The most accurate and up-to-date listing of tenants can be found on the building’s website directory. The most pleasurable way to discover them, however, is to wander the halls.
Studios whose historic tenants were notable are marked by placards with capsule biographies, but current tenants choose how much or how little they want to share. Many offer brochures, postcards and business cards, or post articles about themselves or their work—Kundalini Yoga in the Loop, studio 514, has an extensive display—but others carry on in secret, with no identifying signage at all.
A few are playfully misleading. The frosted-glass window of studio 420 advertises “The Law Offices of Sterling Bodett and Bodett, specializing in aesthetic litigation BY APPOINTMENT ONLY” but is actually the studio of visual artist Matt Bodett, who is not a lawyer but a teacher at Loyola University and Columbia College. He also curates the next-door gallery, Press Here: Center for Mad Culture, “which explores the cultural and aesthetic possibilities of madness.” Then there is the narrow, unnumbered door next to the seventh-floor restroom, labeled Chicago Designer Closets. You might think someone’s having fun—but that’s real. (This playfulness has precedent. When Tom Graham owned the building, an unknown tenant carefully lettered a sign identifying an unleased studio as the William Shatner School of Acting. Then again, the United Planetary Federation, also in the building, was real—as far as that goes.)
What is known is that the sheer variety of tenants is astonishing. In the Fine Arts Building you can find architects, art therapists, authors, a baker, a barber, a general interest bookstore, a ceramicist, chamber musicians, a collagist, a commercial realtor, counselors and therapists, dance instructors, a literary editor, filmmakers, a financial advisor, a flute repairer, a fundraising and grant-writing consultancy, a guitar teacher, illustrators, interior designers, a jewelry maker, lawyers, literacy specialists, mediators, a mouthpiece maker, opera singers, painters, a paperweight dealer, photographers, pianists, puppeteers, a talent agency, a sheet music store, singers, violin shops, vocal instructors, a woodwind maker, and yoga instructors.
A singer, actor or musician can find almost everything they need for their career here: agency representation, auditions, haircuts, head shots, coaching and training, sheet music, fundraising expertise, rehearsal space, yoga for mindfulness, massage after a performance, therapy and counseling—even legal representation should things go awry.
They can even find affordable space in which to practice—or start a new practice—of their own.
Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra
The tenant with the longest tenure in building history was violinist and composer George Perlman, who taught violin in studio 636 from 1926 until 2000, the year he died at age 103. That’s seventy-four years.
The longest active tenant has outlived many of its founders: the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Founded in 1946 by eight north-suburban high schoolers who bonded during summer camp at Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts, by early 1947 the group was rehearsing in the auditorium of the Wurlitzer Music Store at 111 South Wabash. Helped along by some parental connections and fundraising, what was then called the Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago had its first concert on November 14, 1947, at Orchestra Hall. In black-and-white historical photos, the musicians look shockingly adult—yet all were required to resign their seats after graduating from high school.
In 1959, auditions and rehearsals moved to the Fine Arts Building, and the organization has been headquartered there ever since, in studio 833. The current name was adopted in 1988, when the mission expanded to include several community-based sites for younger musicians. Indeed, the mission statement—“To inspire and cultivate personal excellence through music”—seems outdated, given the current scope of CYSO activities.
A full-time staff of eight, along with roughly twenty part-time conductors and coaches, works with hundreds of talented young musicians, aged six to eighteen, in first through twelfth grade. The fourteen ensembles range from the full orchestra to a jazz orchestra and a steel pan and percussion ensemble. And while Symphony Hall performances are still CYSO’s signature event, the 2022–23 season included twenty-seven performances in all, from school and community concerts to chamber music.
“CYSO students tend to be the ones who have an interest in music but are also looking to be challenged,” says marketing director Abbey Hambright. “They come here and thrive on being around other kids who are as passionate about music as they are. We have programs that range from needing no musical background at all for many of our steelpan ensembles, all the way up to our top ensembles with really seasoned musicians who have been dedicated to their instrument for years.”
While each year more than two-hundred students interact with CYSO off-site at public schools, most of them still come to the Fine Arts Building. The building can be quiet during the week, but not so on weekends, when each day some three-hundred instrument-carrying kids pack the elevators and tromp up the stairs to the eighth-floor rehearsal room, the steelpan and percussion studio, and tenth-floor Curtiss Hall.
Parents who have accompanied them—half come from the suburbs, some from as far away as Indiana—crowd the parent lounge, kill time on hallway benches, or disappear to nearby restaurants and coffee shops before making the return commute. Some families travel hours each way to participate in the prestigious program.
The CYSO’s distinguished alumni include music professors as well as star musicians at many large civic orchestras. Demarre McGill, principal flautist for the Seattle Symphony, is an alum, as is his brother Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic.
Alum Mary Elizabeth Bowden recorded a trumpet concerto for Cedille records backed by the CYSO. Pop-culture phenoms Andrew Bird and Laurie Anderson, a generation apart, played in CYSO, too, as did BET co-founder Sheila Johnson, the world’s first Black woman billionaire.
CYSO students have performed with Chance the Rapper on “Late Night with Stephen Colbert”; accompanied the McGills on their album “Winged Creatures”; supported Ben Folds at the Chicago Theatre; played with My Morning Jacket at Lollapalooza; backed Blue Man Group at the Pritzker Pavilion; and even been featured in the Chicago Bulls’ video holiday card.
They’re so famous you might wonder who is supporting whom.
William Harris Lee
The Fine Arts Building is a center for violin making, repair, restoration and sales. Artistic director Jacob Harvey, groaning at his own joke, calls it, “The Violin Mall of America.”
The modern era began in 1976 with Robert Bein and Geoffrey Fushi, who founded a firm that soon became known as a premier authenticator, restorer and dealer of fine violins. Handling rare and expensive instruments by the most famous makers—Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, Guadagnini—their clientele included some of the world’s most famous players: Anne-Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma.
Bein and Fushi are now dead, though a shop bearing their name remains in its prominent tenth-floor location, studio 1014, under the warm glow of the skylights. Their legacy lives on in their shop, their instruments and the luthiers they trained.
Chicago native Bill Lee fell into violin-making during high school, working for a family friend. After a brief stint in New York, he returned to Chicago to start his own business, choosing the Fine Arts Building because of its proximity both to Bein and Fushi and the nearby Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making at State and Wabash (now the Chicago School of Violin Making in Skokie).
Lee started in a small space on the tenth floor, running his own business part-time and working part-time for Bein and Fushi, which was also one of his customers. He wasn’t making violins yet but importing, distributing and supplying dealers with instruments and supplies. In the evenings, he performed repairs under the careful eye of Bein and Fushi’s Bill Webster.
William Harris Lee and Company grew rapidly, expanding into all the studios on the west side of the tenth floor, but soon needed even more space. As Lee tells it, when Tom Graham bought the building, Lee asked whether the annex was available, so Graham walked him to the Michigan Avenue annex.
“No, the other annex,” Lee corrected him.
“What are you talking about?” asked Graham.
“There’s this doorway on the fourth floor and you go across this bridge over the alley to the other building on Wabash.”
“He came back a little while later,” remembers Lee with a chuckle. “And says, ‘Well, I didn’t even know we had that.’”
They took space in the Wabash annex on the top floor, sharing the six-story building with the Chicago School of Professional Psychiatry, a naprapathy clinic, the offices of Streetwise and a daycare center. Still growing, they ultimately took over almost the whole building. His son, Eli Lee, recalls that when the weather was cold, the freight elevator had to be run up and down several times for the running start necessary to reach the top of the building.
Shortly after Bob Berger bought the building in 2005, Lee and Company did move into the Michigan annex, taking their present space (studio 560) on a floor that had been used by the Harrington School of Design but was now in rough shape. During demolition, they found the original stained glass, and the original arched doors, that Frank Lloyd Wright had designed for the Thurber Art Galleries a century before.
Around 1980, Lee’s shop had begun making its own violins with makers Will Whedbee, Gary Garavaglia and Tetsuo Matsuda. Of the “O.G. Three,” as Eli affectionately calls them, only one remains with the firm: Whedbee builds cellos out of his own North Side shop; Matsuda passed away last year; but the genial Garavaglia, seventy-six years old, still walks to work every day.
Supported by Eli, who handles PR and operations, Lee has built a violin empire. In the Fine Arts Building, they occupy most of the fifth floor, where they recently added a second showroom, as well as a varnishing room on the roof. This is their hub for instrument making—not just violins but violas and cellos, too—with warrens of workshops, a retail shop, two reception rooms, storage rooms and a hidden loft for lumber. A shop in Wilmette is focused on restoration, and one in Atlanta is primarily sales and rentals. Employing thirty or so people, Lee claims to be the largest violin-maker in the United States, building fifteen to twenty instruments monthly, each of which requires about 150 maker hours—carving, gluing, varnishing—to complete.
And with a few notable exceptions, says Lee, the greatest shops in history operated at scale, too. That’s an image at odds with the romantic notions of many aspiring luthiers.
“They actually have the idea that, ‘Oh, I have to make everything myself, the way the old masters did,’ without any concept of the fact that Stradivari’s workshop, Amati’s workshop, the greatest workshops, had many people working in them,” says Lee with a chuckle. “But that’s not the image the younger generation is thinking about. They kind of want to be Gepetto.”
Adds Eli, “A lot of people have this idea that those makers we look up to still, that they would be doing it all by hand. They might not be 3D-printing a violin—but they’d be using the machines that refined and improved their process.”
The studios of William Harris Lee and Company are rambling, encompassing everything from a reception room with a stunning view of Grant Park to well-used workshops where sawdust and curls of wood are swept away at the end of each day. Walls are hung with violins and violas and floors are stacked with instrument cases. Despite the size of the operation and the buzz of activity, it retains the feel of a family business and very much carries the personality of its genial founder, who loves to tell stories about the building.
John K. Becker
The studios of John K. Becker and Company (1020) seem almost monastic by comparison. Their rooms under the tenth-floor skylights are elegantly austere, from the carefully restored reception room to the exactingly organized workshops. The work is intent and the atmosphere is hushed, a reflection of the soft-spoken founder himself. If Lee is an entrepreneur, Becker remains a maker, a man wholly devoted to his craft.
Becker was one of many young people in the 1970s who found themselves caught up in the revival of interest in woodworking and other handicrafts. After building an electric guitar in high school (which he gave to Randy California, the lead singer of his favorite band, Spirit), he apprenticed as a harp maker at Lyon & Healy. He liked the work but was frustrated by the fact that harps are finished by several different departments.
“I was more geared to working on smaller things,” he recalls.
Wanting to try violins, he applied to Bein and Fushi, and got in a year later, in 1979. Their apprentice program was notoriously competitive—Becker estimates the attrition rate at nine in ten—but he excelled at the work: “I turned out to be one of the best applicants they ever had, according to Robert Bein.”
He became their lead restorer after only three years, in 1982, then took charge of the whole workshop in 1989, playing an integral part as they rose to become one of the world’s most highly regarded shops for repair and restoration of the world’s finest violins. Seeking more control over decision-making and supply chain, with Bein and Fushi’s blessing he went into business for himself in 1994. He kept the same studio and still did some work for his former employers as their sales functions became more separated from his workshop. Key clients, including Joshua Bell and James Ehnes, followed the man ranked by some as the finest craftsman in his field.
His footprint in the building has grown from his original two studios, 1020 and 1019—1020 (Frank Lloyd Wright briefly occupied 1020, from 1910-11) to encompass seven spaces in all. Despite the challenges—leaks, heat and humidity—of operating in a historic building, Becker remains sanguine.
“I really enjoy being in the building,” he says. “If you work on 400-year-old instruments, you like old things. I have antiques similar to this at home.”
It remains a small shop focused on excellence, and like W. H. Lee, is a family business. Becker works with his sons Garrett, who builds Stradivarius-style violins using traditional techniques, and John J., who handles the business end and is a musician in his own right. Their father is still happiest at his bench, working quietly alongside master restorer Keisuke Hori and luthier Takeshi Nogawa.
An interesting fact is that neither William Harris Lee nor John K. Becker plays the violin. Becker says many repairers and restorers play a little, but he doesn’t know any who are exceptional players. After all, it takes as much time and effort to master playing as it does making. Besides, their job is to adjust violins for the preferences of their intended player, not themselves.
In that way, their most important attribute may be their ears.
Other shops in the Fine Arts Building include Carl Becker and Son (studio 460), Guadagnini Violin Shop (studio 719), and McLaughlin Violins (studio 908). Music Row is long gone, but proximity to Orchestra Hall still means something, as does easy access to the Blue Line and O’Hare. Musicians whose multimillion-dollar violins need work do not tape them up in bubble wrap and drop them off at the UPS Store—they bring them in person.
Lee Newcomer, Performers Music
Lee Newcomer started playing violin at age ten, and although he performed extensively, knew he didn’t have the skill to make a career out of it. In college, he majored in English, and when he came to Chicago from Cleveland in the late 1970s, he first worked as a technical writer. But he found the work boring.
The city already had stores that sold sheet music, notably Carl Fischer and Lyon & Healy, “but frankly, they weren’t doing a very good job.” Newcomer trusted his own knowledge of music and saw a business opportunity. But where to open a shop?
“I didn’t know anything about the Fine Arts Building but I figured that was a good name,” he says. “I lived in the Belmont area and I had thought about opening a store there because it would be in my neighborhood, but that would have been a terrible place to open a classical sheet music store, for the world to come to. And this is perfect. I think it was divine intervention.”
He opened Performers Music in suite 904 on Valentine’s Day, 1981, and never looked back.
Today, Performers Music offers a wide selection of sheet music—mostly classical but also jazz, showtunes, vocal standards and method books—to customers including teachers, students and professional performers. The shop also sells recorders and accessories such as music stands, stand lights, reeds, mutes and lubricants.
Newcomer doesn’t think anyone comes to Chicago specifically to visit his store, but he does have customers from all over the world, some of whom make a point of visiting when they’re in town.
Although only about one-third of his sales are in-person—the other two-thirds come via the website—the people who do walk through the doors tend to make large purchases.
“This is still a very good way to get music because you can look at it, you can turn the pages,” he says. “Increasingly, people buy music the way they buy most things: online. But I’m encouraged by the fact that there are a lot of young people—grade school, junior high, high school, college people—who come here and like doing this.”
And does Newcomer still play? He does, noting, “Now, I’m pretty much just viola.”
Shakta Kaur, Kundalini Yoga in the Loop
Shakta Kaur moved downtown in 1998 and used to watch art-house films at the Fine Arts Theater. The last one she saw before it closed was “The Red Violin.” When she attended a meditation event in tenth-floor Curtiss Hall in 2002, she liked the ambience and energy of the Fine Arts Building, and the way music and voices carried down the halls. She had studied music in college with a major in piano and a minor in koto (a Japanese instrument like a zither, with thirteen strings).
At the time, she was teaching yoga classes in the Pittsfield Building, using someone else’s studio; when she decided to find her own space, the Fine Arts Building seemed a natural place to start. She moved into studio 514 and has been there ever since, renting additional studios over the years when she needed more space.
Last month, Kundalini Yoga in the Loop celebrated twenty years as a Fine Arts Building tenant. Kaur teaches hybrid classes, with people participating both in the studio and via Zoom.
“What is common between Kundalini yoga and other art forms—music, poetry, visual art, dance—is their effect on the emotions and spirit of the participants,” she says. “You just feel better after observing or participating in great music, art, dance or yoga!”
Dr. Yulia Lipmanovich, The Art Of Piano Playing
“When I moved to Chicago in 2003, I was fascinated by the Fine Arts Building and its historic importance,” says Dr. Yulia Lipmanovich. “I wanted to become a member of the colony of amazing musicians and artists who were working at this building.”
The Georgian-born concert pianist first took studio space in 2007, and since then, she has rehearsed and taught in 710 with a stunning view of Lake Michigan.
For the building’s 125th anniversary celebration on October 13, she played a free program of Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and Chopin in the Studebaker Theater, paying homage to Fannie Bloomfeld-Zeisler’s inaugural 1898 piano recital by performing two of the same pieces: Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, and Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23.
If you missed it, you can see her on Sunday, November 19, in a solo show next door at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall.
Other Longtime Tenants
Richard Heiberger played piano recitals in the Fine Arts Building as a kid. Shortly after graduating high school, he rented studio 640, moved his grand piano from home, and began teaching. He’s been here ever since, now with two pianos side-by-side in a cozy room overlooking the Venetian Court.
He signed his original lease with the elderly Schwartz sisters and has seen many tenants come and go. He knows countless stories about the building, from con artists to Al Capone, Barack Obama to Charles Nelson Reilly (who was leading a workshop in the building and got stuck in an elevator).
In the 1980s, business was so good that he leased two additional studios, bought two grand pianos at auction, and sublet the spaces to other instructors. Things have slowed since then; fewer people buy pianos than they used to.
He loves the high ceilings, the view from his bay window, and his fellow tenants, saying, “Everybody really takes care of each other.”
Not too long ago, he moved from his longtime Lakeview home to the New East Side, chased out of his beloved Victorian house by rising property taxes. But he plans to stay in the Fine Arts Building. “I just feel at home,” says Heiberger. “There’s something nice about this building.”
Frank J. Rumoro (studio 639) has been teaching jazz guitar, jazz theory and harmony in the Fine Arts Building since 1975.
Voice teacher Martha Swisher’s mother taught piano in the Fine Arts Building in the 1940s, and Swisher studied there herself in the 1970s before opening her own studio (839) in 1992.
Piano teacher Juanita Saldarriaga (studio 539) has been in the building since 1985. During that time, she’s occupied four different studios on four different floors.
James Tansley, painter (studio 818), has had a studio in the Fine Arts Building since 2003. “I’ve really enjoyed being part of the creative atmosphere in such a historic place that has been the artistic home to so many greats of the past,” he says. “I’d like to think some of that inspiration rubbed off and helped me find my creative voice.”
Andrew Schultze sublet a studio in the early 1990s before leasing his present studio (421) in 1995. Although retired from teaching at the University of Chicago and Columbia College, the voice teacher continues to offer private lessons with support from piano accompanists Louis Playford and Dr. Charles Smith. Of his studio, he says, “I love its high ceiling, which allows the singer to feel the up, over, and out experience of projecting their singing voice without pushing, and it is far enough away from another singing teacher’s studio that we can work with no sonic interference.” He plans to continue his work at the Fine Arts building “well into the next decade!”
Brian Hammersley, Hammersley Architects
Architect Brian Hammersley has been in the business for twenty-five years, running his own firm for fifteen, and a tenant of the Fine Arts Building for eight. In that time, he’s had three studios—612, 1034, and now 941.
In his practice, he is concerned with social equity, art as a concept of self expression, creative space and community art, social housing and green living. He chooses projects for his boutique firm (he has a staff of three) based on social impact whenever possible and he enjoys crunching data to see how buildings can positively affect their surroundings.
“Our work focuses on art and architecture and how they combine, also on residential and community space,” he says.
He’s done projects from South Shore to Vernon Hills but perhaps worked most extensively in his native Oak Park. Two projects currently going forward are community-focused buildings in Austin, one a café and performance space and the other a creative space for community art. He’s partnering with a developer to explore modular-home prototypes to create social housing that combines density with green space and a high quality of life.
“For us, architecture has become about neighborhood and community planning as much as the single piece of architecture,” says Hammersley. “How do you make space that looks at everything around it, and not as an investment? It’s not just one big building that saves a neighborhood, it’s twenty interventions in a space. And those could be from single-family, to hybrid new program types, to convenience stores, to art installations that are generated by a community.”
His work may be contemporary and forward-looking, but he grew up in a 120-year-old house, lives in an old house, and loves working in an old building. Enthusiastic about a recent trip to Rome, he says, “You could call it dirty, I guess, but it is just bursting with life.”
He speaks excitedly about the aliveness of the Fine Arts Building, too. After he became a tenant, he pitched his services to the owner and soon found himself as the on-call architect, overseeing everything from bathroom and suite renovations, to a new stage at the Studebaker, to a full renovation of the Studebaker to ensure it is code-compliant, accessible, comfortable and acoustically tuned. That work didn’t come cheap.
“Erica Berger,” he says, “is an absolute patron of the arts.”
Of the many challenges to preservation is the building’s landmark status: the lobby, the façade and the elevators are landmarked. This of course protects it from the whims of owners less enlightened than the Bergers, but also creates challenges in updating things.
But those challenges are all part of the charm.
“This place feels domestic to me,” says Hammersley. “It’s not an office building. I don’t walk into some swank-ass lobby and have to throw down a card. I walk in and the elevator guy knows my name and where I’m going. I think some of the things that happen here consequently feel a little more personal.”
It also reminds him a bit of Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
“I don’t see this building as old and decrepit,” he says. “I see it as this really beautiful living organism. Life happens here.”
Jahmal Hemphill, Red Birds Everywhere
Jahmal Hemphill has a marketing degree and a barber’s license. From his shop, Red Birds Everywhere (studio 729), he offers marketing services (Black Golf Club is a client), graphic design, headshots and haircuts.
After working in shops and salons large and small, several years ago he decided to go into business for himself. He visited the Fine Arts Building and fell in love with the idea of going downtown, riding the manually operated elevators, and hearing pianos playing in the hallways. He also liked the idea of being around others working to hone their crafts. He moved in during the summer of 2020, as soon as the city allowed barbers to start cutting again.
“If you’re an athlete, you should go to a gym,” he says. “If you’re an artist, you should go somewhere like this.”
Is he an artist, too? “My art lives and dies within two weeks. Everybody else is essentially recording or documenting something that will be at reach or attainable forever. I’m shaping how a person looks, or maybe how they think or feel that day. But it’s going to disappear.”
Hemphill is always trying something new. He has taken a barber chair to Montrose Beach, and to a basketball court, and made videos of the in situ cuts he gives. Calling his time in the Fine Arts Building “album mode,” he tinkers with his offerings and his workspace to create an environment with just the right ambience.
“You can get a haircut anywhere on the street,” he says. “But I’m on the back side of a building on the seventh floor. And I did it specifically because I felt like I have something good enough that somebody’s just going to find me.”
Something else that’s different about a one-man shop? “A barbershop can be like a locker room. When there’s a whole roomful of men, you can’t really say you’re sad. This can be more therapeutic. It’s just me and you and some mirrors, and how honest two people choose to be.”
Haircuts, it happens, can be surprisingly emotional. People get their hair cut for both weddings and funerals, after all. (Or sometimes to celebrate a divorce.) Sometimes they unexpectedly share more than he’s comfortable with, confiding struggles with faith, fidelity and family.
Hemphill has a following, with nearly five-hundred clients in his booking app, and finds that the building’s central location has made his clientele even more diverse. He offers a generous discount to people who work in the building, who tend to be more its staff than its artists.
“The elevator guys may not need a piano teacher,” he says, “but everyone needs a haircut.”
What is the meaning behind Red Birds Everywhere? Hemphill explains that as a teenager, he was always spotting cardinals, so often it seemed weird. They’ve even followed him to the Fine Arts Building—possibly lured by the bird stickers on his window—where they’ve eaten all the spiders on the fire escape outside his window.
Are they good omens? “Ever since I’ve started noticing them, I haven’t really had any negative energy around me. I hesitate to say it’s because of the birds, but I don’t want to say it isn’t, either,” he says with a laugh.
“Red birds really are everywhere, if you are paying attention,” he continues. “And I also look at everybody that I’m dealing with right now, you’re all cardinals, every single one of you. You guys are all different. Somebody’s going to pay attention to you if you give them something to pay attention to.”
One of Hemphill’s most popular products, available online, is merch for the Chicago Birds, a fictional team he imagines for people who want to try but haven’t been given a chance.
“I have a set of shears and an ability to talk to people and to make something from this point to this point, in one hour or less,” he says. “And everybody has something like that.”
Adewole Abioye, Abioye Filmworks
Growing up in Detroit, Adewole Abioye knew his Yoruba parents from South West Nigeria expected him to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. He studied political science at Michigan’s Oakland University and made plans for law school, but his heart wasn’t in it. He loved movies.
It was partly his parents’ fault, because they screened so many for him. When his father borrowed “The Godfather” on VHS from the library, Abioye watched it and was profoundly moved. Clandestine viewings of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” were traumatic—but also exciting.
The film that clarified his calling was Martin Scorsese’s “Casino,” he sheepishly recalls. He saw it as a nineteen-year-old college sophomore.
“It was a gangster film but the way he captured, visually, the soul of the story, I said, ‘My purpose is to tell stories through images,’” recalls Abioye. “That’s when I realized I wanted to get into filmmaking.”
He moved to Chicago, and in 2010, started film school at Columbia College. While making a short film about a painter, “Pieces of Anna,” he filmed a scene in the Fine Arts Building studio of Tiffany Gholar, his roommate’s sister (studio 632). Her creative space made a huge impression.
“I had always wanted to have a studio in this building since that time,” he says. “And I promised myself I was going to get a studio, not knowing the circumstances behind how that would happen.”
After film school, his career took shape. During 2020, he had a contract from Chicago Public Library to direct their “One Book, One Chicago” series but found it difficult to work with his young family crowded into a Rogers Park apartment. He needed more space.
“In August of 2020, I got a studio here (619), and I’ve been here ever since,” he says. “And it’s been a pleasure, it’s been a blessing. I feel lucky to come to work here every day.”
A documentary filmmaker whose heart belongs to stories about real people, he was working on three projects simultaneously at the end of September.
His labor of love is “My Father Lives Here,” a documentary about St. Louis artist Cbabi Bayoc, a painter whose work celebrates fatherhood. Abioye has been working on it since 2012.
He’s also nearly finished with “The Cabinet Maker,” a feature-length film chronicling the life and work of Lawrence Calvin D’Antignac, a Chicago woodworker who died late last year. That film was begun in 2022 as D’Antignac lay dying in the hospital.
And Abioye recently received a PBS commission to create a short documentary profile of Norman Teague, a furniture maker and conceptual artist whose studio is in the Back of the Yards. He began filming in October.
When asked about his obvious interest in handicrafts, Abioye says, “I think there’s a part of me that wishes I worked with my hands in some capacity. Like a painter, if you have an idea, you can go straight to a canvas and paint. A furniture maker, if you want to build something, you can do it… Being a filmmaker, you kind of need an army to realize that vision.”
Kristin Enola Gilbert and Javier Ramirez, Exile in Bookville
Fittingly, the owners of Exile in Bookville (suite 210) bonded over books.
Veteran bookseller Javier Ramirez was working to open Madison Street Books in early 2020 when Kristin Enola Gilbert, an avid reader who lived nearby, began ordering books even before the grand opening. The author that brought them together was John Williams, whose “Butcher’s Crossing” was one of Ramirez’s favorites; Gilbert was incredulous that he hadn’t read Williams’ “Stoner,” her favorite book.
Soon, they were partners, eager to become business partners with a bookstore of their own. They were firming up plans in Logan Square, where the beloved City Lit had closed due to the pandemic, when they were approached by the owners of The Dial, who wanted to sell their used bookstore on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building.
“When we were first approached about it, I thought, no way do I want a second-floor store,” says Ramirez.
Gilbert recalls, “Both of us said, ‘Hell no.’”
But after giving it some more thought, they saw the space differently—and a good thing, too, as City Lit soon reopened under a new owner.
Of the Fine Arts Building, Gilbert says, “The different kinds of art were a big draw to us. We have a firm belief that books and music are intertwined, so what better place for our store than a building that houses art in all its forms?”
They opened Exile in Bookville (its name pays homage to Liz Phair’s landmark album “Exile in Guyville”), in May 2021, and spent an intense year selling off the used stock and filling the shelves with carefully selected new books. Both of them often worked seven days a week while Gilbert continued to teach criminology, sociology and political science full time at Elmhurst University. (She left in May 2022 to focus on the store.)
Two years on, they’re going strong with booming sales and a busy slate of events.
Both have come to see their second-floor location as a feature, not a bug. “It takes a dedicated weirdo and book nerd to come up here,” laughs Gilbert. “It separates the wheat from the chaff,” agrees Ramirez.
The customers do come. Some of them are social media users chasing bookstore vibes—twenty-foot-high bookshelves, enormous picture windows and Michigan Avenue views will do that. But most are serious readers. They are locals and tourists, students from nearby schools, and parents of students from nearby schools. Visitors from other countries are often blown away by the books they can’t find at home.
Gilbert and Ramirez stock some bestsellers in their general-interest store, but take pride in hand-selling thoughtfully selected backlist books, small-press titles, and translated works. The owners’ interest in music is evident in the prominently displayed 33 1/3 series of books about famous albums and in the music they play. They sell vinyl, and shoppers can browse the listening racks and choose something to play on the store’s turntable.
Ramirez has worked in so many bookstores over the previous decades that Gilbert says, joking, “It’s easier to count the places he hasn’t worked than the places he has.” But he seems to have finally found a home on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building.
“This is it,” he says simply.
Cecilia Beaven first discovered the Fine Arts Building because she was hungry.
The visual artist and native of Mexico City (she appeared on Newcity’s Art 50 in September) was visiting the School of the Art Institute as a prospective student when she stopped at the Artist’s Café for lunch. Her first impression when she stepped inside the building?
“I thought it was insane,” she recalls. “Just so old and beautiful, like from a movie or something.”
Although drawn to SAIC because of its big-city campus, and to Chicago because of comics artists such as Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes, she never planned to stay here. But after earning her MFA in 2019, she joined the SAIC faculty and now teaches painting, drawing and comics making, commuting by bicycle from her home in the South Loop.
Beaven recently marked her one-year anniversary in studio 915, making her one of the building’s newest tenants.
Many of her friends have studio space at Mana Contemporary in Pilsen but she prefers being in a multidisciplinary space. She especially enjoys hearing the luthiers at McLaughlin (suite 908) testing their violins and bows. And she’s delighted by the building’s puppeteers. Above all, she loves her studio.
“My studio faces the lake, so there’s always natural light, which is very important for my work. I have spent several all-night working sessions there, and then I get to see the sunrise and it’s really amazing.”
Her work takes an extensive range of forms, from drawings and paintings and murals to animation and sculpture. Some are large, some are small; some are studio pieces, some are public installations. Much of her work, which she describes as “playful and bold, cartoony in some ways,” incorporates elements of Aztec mythology.
“My idea is to rethink it and reevaluate it in our time, and question who gets to tell stories, who gets to define how our culture looks or what it is,” Beaven explains, adding that she finds the folkloric aspects resonate with audiences outside the fine art world. “And I guess my answer is we all participate in the creation of culture. And culture is full of fiction. I’m very interested in how history and mythology—all these things that we take for granted because they seem so institutional—they’re fictions, and they were created by people.
“With my work, I’m trying to affirm that agency that I have as a creator. To play with culture and play with visual aspects of what being Mexican means and reinvent them. I also use myself as a character in my work a lot, which follows a logic that comes from comics, like designing a character.”
Over the summer, she painted “Moon Bloom,” a full-room mural inside the Chicago Cultural Center as part of the “Exquisite Canvas” show. Visitors were encouraged to watch the process of creation and interact with Beaven and two fellow artists.
The summer before that, in collaboration with Yollocalli Arts Reach, the award-winning youth initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art, she worked with a class of teens and young adults to paint a mural on the side of a Bridgeport laundromat. You can still see “Night Moves” at 1103 West 31st Street.
Even stunning studio spaces become the new normal. “After a while, you start to take things for granted, which is kind of crazy,” Beaven says. “So now I just go in and out. But sometimes if I’m at the elevator and I see a tourist come in, I see their fascination. It is really amazing.”