‘Not just a gallery’

By HermineBloom

Hand-crafted floors, waterfalls, an array of canvases in all mediums and work stations will greet artists, community members and anyone in between at Strictly Locals, 4866 N. Clark St., this month. Not intended to be a typical gallery, the 3,000-square-foot space is more aptly described as Uptown’s newest, all-inclusive cultural haven.

Strictly Locals, though first conceived this fall, held a grand opening event on Dec. 10. Full-time carpenter Eliezer Ortiz Jr. and actor John Burks developed the artists exchange studio to eventually host everything from yoga classes to food crawls. It will also serve as an art gallery and a performance space for underappreciated, unknown artists in the city.

To accommodate all different types of events, Ortiz designed everything to be multipurpose: The disc jockey booth can be converted into a stage, the front desk into a bar, the walls separating private work spaces can easily be taken down and an artists’ lounge with whiteboards is secluded.

“I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of a cultural center for artists besides studio spaces or huge warehouses,” said Ortiz, who is a graphic designer and tattoo artist. “We’re going to have events, parties, benefits and welcome associations. Our artists are going to have a lot more people looking at their art than just art-minded people. We’re not just here for gallery lovers; we’re here for everyone.”

Burks said they chose the north end of Uptown for their location because it’s not a neighborhood oversaturated with galleries and the like.

“It’s not an area everyone makes a destination and we think Strictly Locals can be a destination,” Burks said. “We want to be a beacon for the artistic community.”

Ortiz names Pilsen and The Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave., in Wicker Park, as artistic destinations in the city, which is why he wanted to start a small company on the North Side. The construction, which involved building a deejay booth, bar and convertible work stations took 45 days from start to finish, he said.

Ortiz’s devotion to construction, which Burks calls a piece of art on its own, mirrors Strictly Locals’ mission.

“It doesn’t have to be your typical art gallery where you walk around and it’s all sectioned off and quiet,” Burks said. “We want to be able to entertain people.”

For example, from Dec. 17 to 19, Strictly Locals will host a handmade holiday art fair. A comedy showcase will take place on Jan. 15, and the duo has plans to open a cafe within the space as well.

As of now, artists don’t have to meet any certain criteria to see their work hanging on the space’s walls—friends and people in the community who express interest are welcome, Burks said.

Eventually, though, Burks said they will develop an advisory committee, which will determine artists’ acceptance.

Research microscopist and Andersonville resident Sebastian Sparenga, 32, noticed the new multicultural space with original carpentry in the neighborhood while walking his dog. Now, Sparenga’s work will be showcased for the first time at Strictly Locals.

Sparenga, who became involved after merely walking past Strictly Locals, is an example of how approximately 40 percent of the artists currently involved were able to showcase, Ortiz said—because of high foot traffic.

“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time and seeing the place open up down the street from me was the get up and go to get myself in gear and get pieces together,”

Sparenga said.

Through working at McCrone Research Institute, 2820 S. Michigan Ave., and teaching weeklong intensive courses on any kind of analysis that could benefit from use of the microscope, Sparenga took up photography because, as he puts it, documenting things under the microscope is art.

For a soft-opening event on Oct. 30 at Strictly Locals, Sparenga put up four pieces featuring images of different heated chemicals and allowed them to recrystallize on the slide, he said. By looking through the microscope with various filters in place, brilliant colors and patterns illuminated the chemicals.

After living in the Andersonville area for two years, Sparenga isn’t aware of any places like Strictly Locals in the neighborhood.

The scientist-turned-photographer has since come up with ideas he thinks will work perfectly in the space, such as nine larger pieces shown in a sequence that focus on a chemical transforming from one color to another.

“I think Elie’s and John’s idea is different,” Sparenga said. “They want to make it a homey, artistic community for people to share ideas and hold events. Everyone’s been really excited and I hope the buzz continues.”

For more information, visit StrictlyLocals.com.