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Meet Gretchen Hasse

Today we’d like to introduce you to Gretchen Hasse.

Gretchen, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I was born in small-town Ohio; I grew up in Idaho; I went to high school in Wheaton, a Chicago suburb. I moved to Chicago in 1992. I grew up loving stories, particularly those that were told through images. Comics and animation had a special place in my heart. My good friend Mary and I made elaborate, epic-length comics on butcher paper and that old computer printout paper that had the holes on the edges. We traded them and built on each other’s stories throughout grade school.

I don’t think there has been any point in my life when I didn’t have some sort of elaborate, multi-character story going on in my head, and occasionally showing up in my art. It serves as a way to process experiences and explain the world to myself. I guess that is the purpose of stories generally.

My current and longest running epic story is Freaks’ Progress, the webcomic I started posting in July 2015. The story, and the characters, center around a fictional Chicago neighborhood. The overarching theme is the importance of community. I know that word is overused right now, and often to promote things that really aren’t about the community at all. But honestly, the support network I have in this city is unbelievable. Without my community, I would be dead. Or just really sad. Or anyways nowhere near the person I am today.

I started taking storytelling seriously in grad school. I was accepted for film and video after taking some at-large classes in photography, animation, and puppetry. I was lucky to take those initial classes for free since I had an administrative job at the school. This is really something to be aware of as a growing artist. Art school can be a great tool for skills and connections, but it can also be brutal in regards to cost, and what income you might be able to make later on. I think that now, there are a lot of ways to learn skills and build community and connections outside of art school.

Obviously, it’s an individual choice, but you gotta be smart about it. I’m not sure I was that smart. I became involved with some activist projects in grad school, and over time I started regularly doing video work for various groups and action campaigns I believe in. It’s a way to both contribute and to learn. I’m proud to say that some of my video work has been sent directly to state legislators to inform them on particular issues; some of it has been used for community education; a piece or two has been part of some very ambitious and important exhibits; and a lot of it has reached people through local screenings or online access.

I started teaching and taking freelance video clients while I was still in grad school. At the height of my adjunct career, I taught five different classes at five different schools on the north, west and south sides of the city, without a car; and I was also doing a video for a wide array of clients. I got very little of my own creative work done. Thankfully, I eventually got a very flexible full-time video gig for a few years, which normalized my schedule enough that I was able to start focusing on my art practice again.

Around 2010 I became involved with a group of artists in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, at a DIY storefront called Gallery B1e, run by Andy De La Rosa. Among us were longtime community residents, activists, and occasional passers-by who thought the place looked interesting and decided to stick around. My first show with them was a group collage exhibit. I combined some of my old figure studies with found objects, torn up old paintings and cardboard. The gallery enjoyed a fierce loyalty in the community; I sold everything I made for that show, and I continued to sell really well from that gallery for the entire time I was involved there.

The gallery also had an established relationship with the next door Lifeline Theatre; every year gallery members would make three large canvases to hang on the theater façade. In 2012 I painted one of those canvases with one of my webcomic characters. It was my first piece of public art. Years later, in 2017, I completed my first major public mural commission with the Mile of Murals project, also in Rogers Park. My piece, Resilience, is about a block south of the Lifeline Theatre and the old site of B1e. I’m thrilled to have a permanent piece in the neighborhood that has been so instrumental to my current practice.

Like I mentioned above, the community has always been extremely important to my practice – the camaraderie, feedback, and real practical support. I mean support with projects, but also that twenty dollars, you know, that circulates around a group of friends who are always broke, but on a staggered schedule. My gallery friend Sarah Bell and I used to buy each other $5 cheeseburger meals on an alternating basis; she called them “Solidarity Cheeseburgers.” She made me a drawing with that phrase, and wherever I live I display it in a place of honor.

AnySquared Projects in Logan Square is another group that has been enormously important to me. Several years ago, my friend Tracy Kostenbader started opening her art studio to people from the community every week. Over time it has grown into a really dynamic group of people, of all ages and backgrounds, who hang out at her studio and make art with their own supplies or stuff we bring or get donated. We’ve done projects together, including public art.

Probably one of the most ambitious recent examples of AnySquared’s community artwork is the Logan Square Dog Park mural we painted in 2016. The mural brought together both veteran and upcoming street artists from Logan Square and throughout Chicago, and more traditional “paintbrush” artists, like me. I painted another two of my comic characters on that wall. The complete mural is roughly as long as a football field and incorporates the work of nine featured artists, ten street artist crews, and many additional artists and community members who assisted during a Community Paint Day we hosted during a weekend in the summer. It was an enormous organizational effort, but Tracy led it to success AND painted her own giant dogs. That’s commitment.

Last year, my friend Larry Kamphausen from the now-defunct Gallery B1e asked me if I wanted to start up our own cooperative gallery. Both Larry and I have years of experience in cooperatives – I lived in one for four years, and he started one – and we’re both quite aware of the benefits and potential difficulties involved in them. So I said sure. I assumed that it was going to take us well over a year to get anything off the ground, but after we put out a call for applications in April, we gathered a committed group of artists and opened Agitator Gallery in September of 2017.

We mount a new exhibit every month; and we are building a regular schedule of programming, including figure drawing sessions, group art critiques, and silent film screenings accompanied by live music. Later this spring we are going to start offering classes and workshops. We’ve had shows are strictly about aesthetics, and one that was about education and action; moving forward we will likely incorporate both. It’s an intense schedule, and we’re still learning, but I am really proud of everything we have done so far.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
A few years ago, I answered an online questionnaire that asked something like, “What do artists need in order to be successful in Chicago?” I answered, “healthcare and affordable housing.” That’s still true today. Artists are really no different than anyone else in that regard. I’ve definitely come through some tough times financially. I’m still there in terms of precarity. I’m doing great right now, but I am not sure what will happen in a few months. It’s a constant hustle.

And it’s possible that Chicago might become unaffordable for a very large cross-section of people in the near future. It’s difficult to put your best effort into art – or into anything, really – when you are constantly moving around to outrun rising rents. I’m concerned about the future of Chicago, and American cities in general.

I’m reading a book called “How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood” by Peter Moskowitz. It talks about the top-down aspect of gentrification. The city disinvests in poor neighborhoods of color, closing schools and cutting off other resources, pushing people out. Then developers move in to grab up property at rock bottom prices and make a killing as they “rebuild” the neighborhood.

Instead of building on what was already there, and uplifting the existing community with sorely needed resources, they sweep everything away and replace the population with more “desirable” (i.e. white) people, who they support with deals, tax credits, and other advantages. In the process, they wipe out the original culture from the neighborhood.

The Moskowitz book goes through specific examples of how this process played out (or is currently playing out) in New York, Detroit, San Francisco and New Orleans. They don’t use Chicago as an example, but I definitely see parallels.

A recent investigation by the Chicago Tribune, and a subsequent study by an assessment expert from Virginia for the Civic Consulting Alliance, found that Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios consistently “produced error-ridden property assessments that effectively punished poor homeowners while providing tax breaks to wealthy ones” (check out the article by Jason Grotto and Hal Dardick in the 2/5/18 issue of the Trib).

And going on right now, like today as I type this, street artists in Logan Square are being harassed by the police for painting on a one-story warehouse, whose owner has granted a group called Project Logan permission to paint there.

For almost ten years, Project Logan has brought together a really great combination of longterm and new graffiti artists, as well as paintbrush artists, on this building. I was really honored to paint my first mural there in 2016. One of the walls is dedicated to a community participation mural that the neighborhood – I’m talking both old and new residents – contributes to every few years.

People meet there who would never meet each other in another context, and they realize they’re neighbors. I believe that this is one example of how you can begin to actually build up a neighborhood; meet each other, talk to each other, work on something together. And keep doing that.

For this current situation – AnySquared has already contacted the Alderman and is putting together a neighborhood petition in support of the permission walls. Hopefully, this gets resolved soon.

That’s just a couple of countless examples. This type of inequity is baked into how the city is run. I say all this with the consciousness that for me personally, as a white person with a middle-class background, pursuing art is still much easier than it is for many others. Even if I’m flat broke, I have cultural connections and I can move in circles where money is.

Over the years, I’ve seen many of my friends drop out of art because it’s just not feasible for them to do it anymore, whether as a profession or as a labor of love. Sure, some of that has to do with dedication. But a lot of it has to do with economic necessity. So yeah, I have had some struggles. And I think they will continue.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Gretchen Hasse, Artist and Videographer story. Tell us more about the business.
I work as a freelance video producer, I sell my art, and I paint murals. I also pick up other work in various fields. As an artist, you really need to have a big skill set.

Currently, my art practice encompasses collage, murals, video, comics, and soon, I hope, monumental figurative sculpture. The generally accepted wisdom used to be that doing “too many things” would make you seem scattered and unprofessional, but I think that’s changing. And I’m glad because I think that all of my work in different mediums feeds off of each other.

In 2016, I was part of the inaugural cohort of the Chicago Artist Coalition’s Field / Work residency. The residency was several months of lectures and workshops around professional development for artists. It was a valuable experience not only to address a lot of these issues directly related to my own work, but also to meet other artists in a wide variety of disciplines, and see how they struggled with the same issues. It was energizing to become part of yet another community.

No matter what discipline I’m working in at the moment, I relish the problem-solving aspect of it. I love putting together a team and a plan for a video production, or a mural. I love being part of a new gallery that’s growing with the input of a lot of amazing people. With any new project, I try to involve my network of friends and unique set of resources to make it amazing in a particular way.

I choose good team members and then stand back as much as possible, so they can bring their own sheen to the project, and teach me something in the process. The more people who can benefit and grow from the work, the better. I can work on my own, too, and often do. That can be its own meditative solitary pleasure. It just depends on the project or the part of the project I’m working on.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I’m not sure I like the term “luck.” I think of “luck” in my life more in terms of advantages I am able to access. Those advantages are deliberately created to benefit certain groups of people.

Most recently, I’ve been “lucky” in that I got some money when my mother passed away. I was able to take care of bills and expenses that were increasingly hindering my ability to move forward. I was able to purchase equipment that has helped me bring my skills up to date and make me more marketable. I also started donating more to local causes, which I have been wanting to do for a long time.

My parents worked hard to accrue the money they left me; they were frugal and dedicated. A lot of people are frugal and dedicated – but my parents were able to take advantage of programs that were available mainly to white people, and a lot of which don’t exist anymore. I personally did nothing to earn or deserve the money they left me, but it has made an enormous difference in my life. That money really took the desperate edge off of everything.

Being born white and middle class is a kind of “luck” – or privilege – that affects every kind of endeavor, not just a pursuit of art. I am also “lucky” in that for the past few years, I have been able to take advantage of a national health care program. I am lucky to be alive at a time when that is finally a political reality in this country. I am lucky to still be able to afford it because the cost is skyrocketing. Being insured outside of a regular job has meant that I am able to pursue art, and any kind of entrepreneurship I do, way more seriously than I could otherwise.

I know so many people for whom the ACA came at a very critical time. It has saved lives. It’s far from an ideal system, and it is sadly becoming more and more unaffordable for a lot of people. I believe that is deliberate on the part of lawmakers, who are making health care into a sort of luxury in the US. That’s ridiculous.

I am afraid, for myself and others, that we might lose access to health care, especially as this country skews more and more toward a gig economy. I want to work to create something that is truly universal, comprehensive, and affordable; a real effort at establishing a Common Good. It’s a matter of choosing what we as a nation want to pay for. That would move beyond luck.

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