Rockford's Next Artists Thriving Outside The Mainstream

Nov 25, 2013

Art is a tough way to make a living. Ask any musician, writer, sculptor, or actor. Following your passion often means spending more time than you’d like doing something else to pay the bills. Today, we wrap up our series on arts adapting in Rockford with a look at some of the people creating their art just outside the mainstream. 

Ska fans pack the cramped basement at Disastr House to see The Mushmen, from Kalamazoo, Michigan. It’s one of Joe Disastr’s favorite shows he’s put on in the home he shares with an ever-changing number of people on Rockford’s near west side. Disastr House is an underground concert venue and might just be the only home in the city putting on a show every week. Joe’s the lease-holder, books the shows, runs the sound, and as he puts it, makes sure the place doesn’t catch fire, among other duties.

Mushmen fans didn’t HAVE to pay anything to see the band, but it’s really helpful if they do. Those punk, metal, ska, and folk bands might not get paid if the attendees don’t pony up. Joe Disastr stays this side of the zoning laws by not charging admission: but voluntary contributions are welcomed, and much-needed, from cash to canned goods to useful stuff like extension cords.

Joe books the bands much the same way people find out about the shows: word of mouth and through Facebook.  He says when he was growing up, there was a place in downtown Rockford, That One Place, where you didn’t have to be rich or 21 to see a great band. He wants to make sure people still have that opportunity.

“It’s always been the voice of youth, you know. We are giving a voice to that art, that’s what we are trying to do.”

Joe Disastr says what he needs is more bands -- more local bands that are willing to put together a 20-minute set and bring some friends. Oh, and blankets, heaters, anything to keep the residents of Disastr House warm this winter.

Jesus Correa has played at Disastr House. He plays in bands, does stand-up comedy, and says he’s getting the itch to read poetry in public again. He ran for mayor in 2009. And Correa is a visual artist – paintings, cartoons, electronic collages -- he has a knitted piece in the show “Symbol: Art Inspired By Art” at Kortman gallery in downtown Rockford. That one has already sold…but it doesn’t mean that he gets to quit the day job, as a roofer.

“I have hope, I guess, I just keep working at it, along with anything I do, I continuously do it. I don’t think about the money, it comes to me more and more, because I’ve put myself out there for long enough that I’m confident in anything I do. It pays off now, I think.”

Correa says he’d like to see the city invest more in its artists: cut some red tape, convert some empty buildings into studio space, support your local artists and see what you attract:

“It’s a sense of making a joy where there was once no joy. People are attracted to that, and they come to be around that.”

Jennifer Langworthy teaches art at Rockford University. She says there’s not a lot of disposable income around Rockford for people to sponsor or buy art, but there’s a lot of creative energy. She’s a Rockford native, too, and has been a part of the art scene since she was a teenager.  She’d like to see the city do more to help its artists: she says a lot of people have great ideas and skills, but the realities of life keep them grounded.

“Space, time, money. Those are the needs to make art.”

Langworthy says she’d like to see the city sponsor a stipend, or scholarship, for artists -- almost a real world sabbatical -- to help them spend more time creating. She says that’s one way to keep talented young people in Rockford. Langworthy says her students aren’t buying into the negative national reports about Rockford:  they’re turning to successful young artists for inspiration, such as Jarrod Hennis, co-owner of Rockford Art Deli. He’s a printmaker, and part of the artists’ collective “Fatherless."  Rockford Art Deli is a print shop, a t-shirt boutique, a gallery, and a performance space. The print shop pays the bills right now.

“I know definitely we could move anywhere. We can do exactly what we are doing and probably double, triple, our business. We like the history behind Rockford, we like the people in Rockford, the downtown is such a clean slate to get started in to make it something really awesome. I think it’s more like we want to be a part of it and make it happen, versus just giving up, and be like “see ya! It’s easier somewhere else.”

Hennis says the biggest challenge for Rockford artists is SELLING.

“There’s a price point that sells in Rockford and it’s not a very high one. So it’s educating, teaching, saying this is why it costs so much. I put 200 hours of fine hand-drawn detail in here, that’s why this piece is $600, which if you actually calculate that out by hours is just pennies. Sweatshop wages.”

Doc Slafkosky is co-owner of JR Kortman Center for Design and Gallery. He’s the gallerist, the one who chooses who and what goes up on the walls. And he says he’s seeing a resurgence in art in Rockford like he hasn’t seen for 30 years. His advice to up and coming artists?

“Get out there and make your work affordable and get it placed. Get it placed in people’s collections. You’re marketing yourself by doing that.”

Slafkosky says young artists need to understand it’s important they support their local galleries, too. The more there are, the more successful they are, the better it is for the artists.

About halfway between JR Kortman and Disastr House is an inconspicuous old brick storefront. Follow the hand-drawn “Auditions” sign up the stairs and you’ll find Mike Werckle running a few actors through the paces. They want a part in The West Side Showroom’s first production. The theater group is about a week old and wants to put on the kind of shows Rockford isn’t used to seeing. “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and “Sleeping Beauty, or Coma” are scheduled to hit the stage December 19th.

“Most of the people who are trained to be artists in this town end up leaving because there isn’t an outlet here, like there is in Chicago or New York.”

Werckle and the group’s producer, Liz Newman, recognize a niche that needs filling in Rockford’s arts community: independent LOCAL theater, taking on new works. Newman asks for the community’s help:

“If you see a flyer, if you see something on Facebook, if you hear a story, show up! Don’t just go, oh, I bet that’s neat. We have to have people in the door, we have to have people in the seats in order to continue, and that doesn’t just apply to us. That applies to every group in town that’s trying to do something. It’s the best thing that you can do. Show up!”

Or donate money.

Whether it’s theater, music, or visual art, there’s a core group of talented people who have decided to invest themselves in their home town.  Doc Slafkosky says they share a vision.

“We have a love/hate relationship. Sometimes we hate what it is in some ways. But we love what it can be. And I think we all feel that we can contribute to that and make something happen. We all want to see it. We all want to see something great happen here. I think the people who stay honestly feel something great CAN happen here.”