Historic Prairie back to form

By WilliamPrentiss

Prairie Avenue Gallery’s groans and creeks quickly tell visitors that a century’s worth of feet have stepped upon its floor. With its reopening six months ago and the premier of its new exhibit, “Indie/South Indie Show,” the house has begun talking more, whispering “everything old is new again.”

The gallery, 1900 S. Prairie Ave., is on the first floor of an old stone mansion built in 1870 on the historical Prairie Avenue by philanthropist Elbridge Keith. Its latest show, the fourth since it reopened, features work from Chicago artists Elizabeth Buchanan, Yvette Kaiser Smith, Karen Wohlberg, Elke Klaus, Sharon Vitali and Duk Ju L. Kim.

Works range from Buchanan’s glass layered photography to Smith’s wall-filling, math-focused sculptures. Buchanan, curator and event artist, said all of the artists share a fascination with architectural design and explore that in their work.

“On the surface, you have those structural formal elements: color, texture, shape, line,” Buchanan said. “Then, each artist has their own framework of thinking going on behind that, so it adds a whole other element … elements that are from long ago, so you have these old ideas that fit perfectly with the house.”

Marcy Baim lives in the building and rents out the upper floors to tenants. The building had been neglected until her parents, Joy Darrow and Steve Pratt, bought the house in the ’70s and opened the original Prairie Avenue Gallery. Both she and her sister live in the house now. Darrow, a former Chicago Tribune reporter, regularly saw various well-known politicians and artists of the day in attendance at many of her events.

Baim remembers many of the shows her mom hosted in the original Prairie Avenue gallery. She said they were usually very political and rarely showcased anything actually for sale. There was a show about the homeless situation and urban housing, a black photojournalist event, a Day of the Dead party and a poetry slam about Vietnam 10 years after the war was over.

Baim said she has a new appreciation for what went into all of them now that she’s organizing the parties. Everything has survived the constant activity in the old mansion, except the hardwood floor, which is a little shaky from people dancing on it over 30 years, she said.

“I used to have Columbia parties here … all the teachers and all the students [would come],” Baim said. “We’d party [until] four in the morning and sit on the steps and watch the sun come up. I’d have 200 or 300 people here from Columbia back in ’78. It has a lot of party karma.”

While the gallery is a place to hang art, Baim said she would like it to also be an alternative space for the community, but it will take time for it to develop because the neighborhood blew up all at once. In the end, she has to assume she won’t sell the work and still find a way to keep the lights and heat on, she said.

Jack Sandquist, a sophomore music composition major at Columbia, has lived on the floor above the gallery since September. He found it through CraigsList.com when he posted an ad on the Web site that said, “Columbia student seeks home.” Baim responded the next day.

He didn’t bother opening any of the other responses and felt like he knew this was it. He’d never been on the street and was stunned when he arrived at the cul-de-sac. He feels like he’s living in a forgotten time, he said.

“I like how the original gates are still there by the park and some of the houses have extremely old metal gates … to see some of the old, old houses like Baim’s with horse carriages that go down to the garage from before when it was a horse stable—It’s an amazing house,” Sandquist said.

Gallery hours are Saturday and Sunday noon – 3 p.m. The final day for the “Indie/ South Indie Show” will be on Nov. 15. For information about tours or inquires into possible events call