Artist and writer Brit Barton spoke with Boyang Hou of Fernwey an artist-run gallery and creator of artist editions.The conversation highlighted Fernwey’s approach to maintaining their creative vitality amidst the logistical requirements of their artistic, exhibition and publishing practice. Support for this interview is provided by Common Field’s Field Grant Program.
Brit Barton (for CAW): Who is Fernwey? I understand that there are currently three people but did it start with four?
Boyang Hou (Bo): Me, Ilan Gutin, Richard Blackwell, and Kate Conlon started Fernwey in 2014. We all knew each other really well through grad school. You know, we’d worked together extensively so that relationship was there. Maybe it was like May – right around graduation. Ilan was living at 916 N Damen above the space where Fernwey is now and was given the opportunity to take over the lease for the storefront space. We’ve been in that space ever since. Kate, Ilan and I are still involved. Richard left the country in 2015. We usually do three shows in the fall. The second half of the season, January to July, changes year to year. I think we had six shows last Spring. In total there have been around 25 or 30 counting pop-ups and things. Honestly, I’ve lost count but it’s around that.
Brit: Where did the name Fernwey come from?
Bo: The name of the gallery comes from the German word fernweh which does not have a direct English translation. It’s meaning is, essentially, the opposite of homesickness – a longing for a place you’ve never been. It felt appropriate at the time since we were the new gallery in Chicago.
Brit: Do you all have a list of artists that you all specifically actually work with?
Bo: No, we don’t have a roster.
Brit: What was the impetus behind not having a roster?
Bo: I think it’s partially where we see ourselves in the space of the larger Chicago art community. Fernwey functions somewhere between a full-scale commercial space and an apartment gallery. Ideally, it’s a place where emerging artists can up their stakes and more established artists can experiment. With all of us being working artists and emerging artists, it still feels very strange and possibly a conflict of interest to be commercially responsible for someone else’s career and that’s what I feel like a roster suggests. For now, producing good exhibitions and good collaborative editions are our main focuses.
Brit: Are you all native Chicagoans or transplants? There are so many types of gallery compositions. When you say that you’re considering Fernwey in terms of a specific feel, what does that mean to you?
Bo: Well, Ilan is originally from the D.C. area. Kate and I are from the New York area. I grew up in Jersey and Kate in Connecticut. I went to undergrad in New York City and stayed there until I moved to Chicago for grad school. Hopefully, Fernwey can act as some kind of transition between a traditional apartment gallery and a more commercial gallery. It is an apartment gallery though- Kate and I live in the back now and Ilan lived there before we did.
Brit: The idea is that it’s essentially a clean, well-lit space that mimics the white cube, but largely rejects it by not employing the roster. That’s also a critique of the market, in my mind, disrupting the notion of the responsibility, or maintenance, of someone’s career while maintaining the stakes of a commercial space. I understand the negotiation of not wanting to have the responsibility for somebody else’s career. But how do you see your own careers within this?
Bo: I think that it has evolved a lot in the last three and a half years. When I started out, I didn’t want to wear the label of gallerist/curator or director. I just wanted to participate. In my head, we were facilitating art and putting pieces together for interesting shows. It was also really fun to collaborate with other artists on projects for our editions. It kept us interested, creatively speaking, and offered something new for the artists we were working with as well. I think in creating a space physically, you also create that space in terms of energy. That energy feeds all of us and gives us the opportunity to create what we see lacking in the community. Still, we are all emerging artists, so the division of time and energy is a constant battle. We have had to find the balance – a reciprocity – between the gallery and the studio.
Brit: I think that that’s the big pitfall of Chicago right? I think we resist the idea that we are hierarchical here, but ultimately, the ecology of the city makes it so. It’s difficult. I know friends who run spaces, or program or teach, but feel the need to say, “I am an artist before I am XYZ”. But I see them spend a huge chunk of time, money and effort on this thing that may suggest otherwise.
Bo: You know at this point things are what they are. And I think it’s probably better to embrace the confusion rather than fight it. But with that being said, you know behind the scenes we are all making choices and directing our time and energy toward whichever goal seems most important at the moment.
Brit: How do you all negotiate resources? Particularly when it comes to the editions. When I think of Fernwey I think so often of the editions because there is an authentic effort there to create something concrete, as opposed to exclusively dedicating yourselves to the ephemeral feeling of an exhibition. What was the decision process for the editions?
Bo: Everything happened as it needed to. After our first show, we realized that we needed a way to offset the cost the gallery, show by show, month to month. Kate, Ilan, and Richard all got their MFAs from the SAIC Printmedia department, so editioning work or making multiples seemed like a logical method. Once we started, we realized that publishing editions really allowed us to play to the advantages of being an artist-run space. The project allows us to facilitate the production of work that might be outside an artist’s usual practice or capability, it keeps us interested in the long term, and it gives us a way to offer our audience original work at an affordable price.
Our very first edition was with Nick Schutzenhofer during our second show. We made a series of Untitled 22” by 30” two-color lithographs. We did three color variants in a split edition of 9. The project was large-scale, complicated, and not easy to sell. We’ve since streamlined the process making smaller prints that are easier to frame and handle. We’ve tried different methods of distributing prints too. We set up a subscription service a few years ago where you could sign up to receive all of the prints for a whole or half season.
Brit: How did the subscription model work out?
Bo: Not as well as we’d hoped, which is why we haven’t done it again. We are just constantly experimenting on every level. Print-wise we’ve done just about everything, silkscreen, Chine-collé, etching, lithography, and relief. We’ve done handmade books, laser-cut books, perfect bound books, custom stamps, and postcards. We just did a stationary set with Jessica Campbell. Kate Conlon is mainly in charge of the edition’s program. It has been her brainchild since the beginning. Of course, Ilan and I will throw in our input.
Brit: Which comes first, the edition with an artist and then the exhibition? Or is it the exhibition and then the edition?
Bo: Usually, the exhibition and then the edition. We’ll put together the exhibition and if it’s a solo show then that’s who we’re working with. If it’s group show then we’ll look at the candidates and make a choice based on a number of factors.
Brit: I love that you called them candidates. Is there a nomination process or how is it decided between the three of you which artist to work with?
Bo: No nomination process. We just work with whoever feels like the most obvious choice. A large portion of our shows are solo shows, so that’s definitely the person we’re working with for the edition. In a group show, it’s sometimes more difficult to decide but they’re usually someone that we really want to work with. Logistics and fluidity are important considerations since we’re doing at least one project with every single show. We especially like to work with artists who make ephemeral work or work that is otherwise difficult to obtain so that we can make something unique to share with the community.
Brit: The edition that comes to mind for its ambiguity is former Renaissance Society curator Hamza Walker’s edition. That was a curious show. I had two thoughts; one is a little more cynical than the other. We could go into “artists-as-curators” or “curators-as-artists” We all love Hamza and we all support Hamza. But, this is the cynical part, is the motivation to choose an artist or a person to do an edition ever informed by the presumption that it’s going to sell?
Bo: I think it’s a very reasonable question. I don’t think it’s cynical at all because financial stability in the arts is extremely important and under-discussed. We do think about whose work would sell but a lot of times we end up contradicting that intention in favor of doing a more interesting project. Maybe on the surface, that edition with Hamza seems financially motivated, but in reality, that project was more of a friendly gesture than a money-maker. When Hamza Walker was about to leave for LA last year, we were fortunate enough to be able to facilitate his last curatorial project here in Chicago. The exhibition revolved around his massive artist book collection, and in the two months or so leading up to the move he would invite us over to discuss the show, share with us his favorites and put off his packing.
I was documenting the whole process with my camera and coincidentally during that time, we learned that Hamza loved Michael Asher’s postcards and gave them to friends as gifts. Because of this, we decided to make a boxed set of postcards and postage stamps for Hamza as a farewell gesture from his friends in Chicago. The postcards feature photographs of Hamza’s artist book collection as it was being packed up for his move. The stamps, which are custom real, legal tender, peel out of a photograph of the mountain of books in Hamza’s bedroom. These stack-of-book stamps could then be sent around the world and back.
Another example is the recent edition with Jessica Campbell. We made a stationery set with Jessica that included a handmade memo pad, stickers, pencils, and screen-printed erasers in an engraved acrylic box. Jessica is a great artist and a really interesting figure in the community. But, you know, a stationery set is probably the least profitable thing we could have done. We had to source out like four different things, and then produce and assemble the rest of it. In the end how much are we going to get to charge for a stationery set? That project was super fun, though, and somehow it totally made sense to do. Maybe it’s about balancing everything out in the end.
Part of the reason we did that show with Hamza was that we share a mutual love for artist’s books. Our casual discussions evolved into that show. The negative side of that is, at our scale, we can’t really make a living off of selling art books. The amount of labor and the production costs make it a losing battle. With that said, we’re not going to stop doing book projects because there is so much that we love and respect about the medium.
Brit: But do you feel like the editions have been a successful step in attaining financial flexibility to run the gallery?
Bo: Yeah for sure. From a financial standpoint, we can make more money from prints than publications or most editioned objects. But on the other hand, it’s like how else can we push ourselves? With our resources and Kate leading the charge it’s a no lose situation. The editions are our bread and butter, both in a financial and a creative sense. They are the reason that we are still here in our fourth year. We are excited that artists now know about the program and are starting to propose projects with us. We see that area of Fernwey continuing to grow.
The process of collaborating on the editions is also so useful to us as artists. Each project is a new challenge. I know that when Kate works with an artist on a print or object she’s always coming back excited that she’s just learned how to do this new thing, and then a week later she’s an expert at it. It’s amazing to kind of see that transition and I think that’s invaluable for her practice.
Brit: So, this interview was made possible by a grant from the Common Field. Chicago Artist Writers has been around for a little bit, this is actually our 5 year anniversary, and we continue to try to find ways to pay artists for their writing to cover alternative and artist-run spaces. Maybe because we feel that pressure ourselves, I am curious about what you think of when you think about Fernwey as you started, as you are now and as you will be. If we want to deem success through a financial lens, where do you go from here?
Bo: It’s really hard to say because so little of our trajectory has been planned. We see Fernwey as an experimental project and we want to continue to have the flexibility morph and change in reaction to what’s going on around us. Being financially ‘successful’ is really misleading in the arts since week to week and month to month we have to completely reinvest in ourselves to produce new projects. Long term it’s not a feasible model but what’s great right now is that all three of us are at a point in our lives where we’re not responsible for much other than ourselves and our engagement in the art community. That will change, and we’ll have to react to it. Mostly, we just want to keep participating and facilitating. If our constant experimentation leads us to a place where we know that we will be able to do this, we will be happy.
Brit: Is there an overarching collaborative spirit or designated roles between the three of y’all?
Bo: It’s a little bit of both. We’ve definitely had our growing pains trying to figure out how to best work together. I don’t think we could have gotten to where we’re at now if we hadn’t gone through those growing pains. Sometimes, one of us will advocate for something super hard. Other times we function as more of a committee. Because we all have other careers, the structure has to stay flexible. We have to be able to pass responsibility around as needed. It’s a constant experiment. We do have a general division of labor worked out now, though. When something comes up we know who is responsible for stepping up to take charge of that. We’re not exactly like a well-oiled machine but at least we do have a pretty good understanding of our group dynamics. And that makes things a lot quicker and a lot easier. PYP “play your position”.
I think about the music industry a lot in relation to what we are doing. In that industry, it is becoming more common for artists to distribute their music independently. These artists have control over the financial end of their work and often use this power to promote other musicians whom they respect. The art world is always very slow. The evolution is stiff. But I can see a new model where the artist/market relationship functions more like this.
Brit: Thinking about for artists by artists, that’s the printmaking process at play. It’s super labor intensive, but it’s a labor of love. What are you guys showing next?
Bo: Right now there are a couple interesting things in the works. We have a lot of examples from our editions program at the Art Shoppe downtown at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel through Johalla Projects. We just participated in the Chicago Art Book Fair which was a great success. On Saturday, December 16, we will be premiering some new editions at the gallery including new projects with Michael Milano, Susan Giles, and Jefferson Pinder. And any more things on the books for spring too.