It was a bright day in late summer when local artist and organizer Tracy Kostenbader sat down in her Logan Square apartment to talk about her life and work. She answered the door in a muted blue cotton dress, her long wavy hair loose about her shoulders and a light sweat shining on her face. She had been dusting.
“August, I kind of decided, is my slow month,” Kostenbader said when she had settled into a plant-filled room set off from the rest of the loft by shelving units bursting with books and records. A fan whirred nearby, sending a lazy breeze in our direction, but the tranquility of the setting belied its busy history.
Over the 26 years that Kostenbader has lived in her apartment, which was at one point appropriately dubbed the AnyWhere Space, she has hosted fine art sales, punk concerts, anarchist meetings, and even a legal archive for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Most recently, the space has become the headquarters of Kostenbader’s arts collaborative, AnySquared. After a series of health complications, however, the artist has begun to exercise a little more restraint over her home.
“I almost died in 2012,” she said, describing how doctors had “poked” her internal organs during a surgery to remove her gallbladder; the event was closely followed by a thyroid surgery when she was later diagnosed with a malignant tumor in the gland. In the past 18 months, she has been treated for a rare autoimmune disease that causes her to visit the emergency room 2-3 times a year now, she said.
My whole life I’ve had a giant amount of energy to do a lot of things. And I’ve been doing them for a very long time,” Kostenbader said. “And now I do not have as much energy, and that’s OK,” she added, speaking of the lifestyle change before laughingly admitting that the adjustment was a belated one: she put on an expansive art walk within a month of her thyroid surgery in 2012.”
Kostenbader offers these tidings like greeting cards, a mien of good cheer wheat-pasted onto some major event. She laughs a lot, a rippling sort of laugh that comes on strong and ends abruptly.
Creativity Flows Inside AnySquared
A sandwich board on the sidewalk of Milwaukee Avenue by California Avenue reads “Go Art!” Following the arrow leads through a door and up a set of stairs crowded with ladders and frames and discarded canvases. At the second floor landing, a door marked “Anyplace” stands ajar.
Inside, a big open-floor-planned apartment full to the gills with art and art-related equipment boasts Studio Day at AnySquared every Wednesday from 3 – 10 p.m. It’s a time when anyone can come and use the materials and the space to make art and hang out. A pleasantly decorated dining room with a small table is partitioned from the elongated kitchen by a vestigial bar. The whole place teems with paintings, some of forks, some of faces, each one more vibrant than the last. The effect is chaotic and charming.
Behind a thinly fabricated wall lies the studio, where the host, Kostenbader, can be found. This is the main space of the apartment; it looks like a coworking space that’s been glitterbombed. There are shelving units everywhere holding old magazines, stencils, chalk, crayons, markers, papers, hundreds of paint brushes. Kostenbader justified the organized chaos with a wave of her hand.
“I want you to be able to make everything you can,” she said.
Several work tables host about five people quietly drawing or typing on computers. One of them got up and called out, “Tracy, I’m gonna go take a nap.”
Juan Cano, another local artist in Logan Square, showed up with a stack of specialty paper for the studio. Donations account for most of the supplies in the space that aren’t part of Kostenbader’s own art practice (the space doubles as her personal studio). Over the course of its eight-year existence, Studio Day has gained enough renown that the system works.
“Everybody donates stuff, and it feeds back in,” she said.
She and Cano got to talking about a project they are supporting, a street art mural around the corner on the side street Medill known as Project Logan. Recently, the building on which the mural rests came under new ownership, and the police have started being called on the artists working on the mural.
“We have never ever been bothered in eight years at Project Logan, and it’s the new people moving in who don’t like it,” Cano said.
Kostenbader explained that despite having written permissions to work on the wall, artists were harassed by the police. AnySquared assisted the project’s partners, Renegades of Funk and Artistic Bombing Crew, in circulating a petition throughout the neighborhood asking people to sign a statement to the effect of “I like the wall.” Still, one of the artists was charged and had to appear in court. Naturally, Kostenbader went, too.
“Of course I am [worried about the future of AnySquared],” Kostenbader said. “The neighborhood is changing. And people are coming and going. And people who were my long term neighbors are already gone.”
Kostenbader blamed the changing times on developers who are buying properties in the area and raising rents. In the past couple of decades, an influx of young professionals and commercial enterprises has turned the neighborhood on its head, and Kostenbader has not been immune to that shift. She and her landlords negotiated a three-year lease that would see her rent rise $350 over the course of the arrangement, and though some might consider that lucky, she has had to add a third roommate to cover some of the costs. She even started charging the glee club that uses the apartment as practice space on Monday evenings $10 each week.
It was difficult to tell the extent to which these developments weighed on her—she discussed them plainly and without much emotion. Even when she talked about her own rising rent, she made room for her landlord’s considerations: “I didn’t even think about being displaced, but … because of my landlords aging, I worry about it.” Eventually, though, she put it plainly: “It’s gonna be hard if I ever have to leave.”
Yet, AnySquared remains independent, and Kostenbader repeatedly praised its informal status (AnySquared is not officially incorporated in any capacity).
“I have intentionally not become an official not-for-profit,” she said. “We can be political. We can do whatever the hell we want because we’re not a not-for-profit.”
Part of this reticence comes from a history in arts organizing that began in 2008, when she joined the organization Neighborhood Artists in Logan Square and hosted a fine arts sale in AnyWhere Space. After that event, Kostenbader says she was recruited by another artist into working on the first full-scale Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, or MAAF. This collaboration led to the creation of the Chicago ARTillery Collective, a short-lived but highly active organization that dissolved nine months after its inception in 2009; the split led to the creation of AnySquared, which at the time had five members, including Kostenbader. Through AnySquared, Kostenbader was able to continue her work with MAAF, and the event eventually earned the distinction of becoming the Chicago Reader’s “Best Public Art Event 2012.” The same year that MAAF won its award, Kostenbader pulled out due to increasing corporatization, and AnySquared became her primary focus.
Connections and Growth
Whenever a new person enters Studio Day at AnySquared, Kostenbader welcomes them, introduces them to everyone, and gives them a tour of the space. She explains this practice nonchalantly, saying, “Places are as diverse as the human beings that you welcome into those spaces. I don’t seek for AnySquared to be diverse, it just happens that way because … people feel welcome.”
Cano’s young children were in attendance one week, about which Kostenbader offered another plainspoken imperative: “All the artists are allowed to be here.”
And they do come. Kostenbader states that she hosts about 20 to 30 artists over the course of any given Studio Day, sometimes even all at once. When it gets full, she says they always make space.
Despite the simplicity of Kostenbader’s remarks, this seems to be the raison d’être of Studio Day.
“Relationships are everything,” she said at one point.
In the corner of the studio space, sit two examples of this goal: Brian Herrera and Helen Sanchez. The pair is working on a studio art class they co-instruct at the nearby Roberto Clemente Community Academy. Unsurprisingly, Kostenbader put them up to the partnership, and Herrera and Sanchez are more than eager to express their gratitude.
“Painting is what makes me most happy, and [Kostenbader] allows me to do that,” said Sanchez, who is also a student in the Art Education Department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“[Kostenbader] was a huge mentor figure,” said Herrera. “She helped me take my art more serious.”
One of Kostenbader’s most recent pieces rests against the wall not too far away—a large painting of the word “ADVOCATE.”
“I think my role as a mentor and an artist is the right thing to do right now,” she said. “It’s a little wearing—the politics of the world—but at the same time you gotta keep doing things.”
I have intentionally not become an official not-for-profit. We can be political. We can do whatever the hell we want because we’re not a not-for-profit.”TRACY KOSTENBADER
Equally as important as her mentorship, for people who come to this space there is “a sense of community,” Kostenbader said.
Steve Rhodes, one of Kostenbader’s roommates, said he’s met some of his “all-time favorite people” at Studio Day. He shared that being in art spaces can be weird but that “being [at Studio Day], it’s almost like being pre-validated.” Everyone is welcome.
I hear similar sentiments from everyone. The next room over, an inviting space full of plants and couches, records and books, I find a group of young people eating fast food and joking about being “bros.” “You’re my world, bro,” one says while someone else nearly topples a coffee table.
I quickly learn that none of these four live in Logan Square but rather travel here from all over Chicagoland—Cicero, Edgewater, the Loop, even Skokie. And none of them knew each other before AnySquared. Now, though, they laugh until they squeak, literally.
And not about nothing, too. As I sit with them, they discuss a range of topics, from economics (“I think this place is part of the reason I became a socialist”) to the president (“honestly that whole perspective is pretty flawed because America has never been great”) to the internet (“look at this meme”).
Once upon a time, Kostenbader led an entirely different life. “I really threw down for a while,” she remarked of the period from the early ‘90s through the 2000s when she was a die-hard activist.
During that time she worked as a political organizer on anti-war campaigns, which led to her 1991 introduction to Marlene Kamish. Kamish was a lawyer who had just left her job as a public defender to take the case of Manuel Salazar, a Mexican-American man who had been convicted of the 1984 killing of a Joliet police officer and sentenced to death. Kostenbader and Kamish became close friends, and Kostenbader’s activism shifted to center around Salazar’s case. Kostenbader described the moment Salazar won his retrial in 1996 as “a triumph” and “the best feeling ever.”
Shortly thereafter, the pair went on to work for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was described in 2001 as “perhaps the world’s best known death-row inmate” by The New York Times. While working on that case, Kamish became fatally ill and died in 2008, Kostenbader told me as tears welled in her eyes.
“That changed a lot of things for me,” said Kostenbader, who also stated that throughout this period she had “subsumed [her] whole life into activism,” even going so far as to travel weekly from Chicago to Pittsburgh for an entire year to fulfill her role as Kamish’s legal assistant.
“After Marlene I was devastated, and I was mourning,” she said. So she turned back to painting, for which she had attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to process. In 2006 she had her first solo show in many years and a year later she had another. She also received a Community Arts Partnership grant to make and document her art that year, but she knew something was missing.
“I realized I didn’t want to do it alone,” she said.
Kostenbader was at her most activated when she discussed the impact the AnySquared community has had in her life. She almost shouted when she said, “It makes me happy! And I love it. And actually, for me my mission in life is to nurture all these artists.”
The sentiment echoed previous statements she had made when we spoke, especially her belief in mutual aid, which describes a reciprocal exchange between equal parties. Mutual aid is a popular dynamic among those who wish to create non-hierarchical bonds of organization.
Kostenbader was quick to defend it from would-be detractors: “I’m not wide-eyed about it. I literally think it makes my life better. And the kids—it makes their lives better, or they wouldn’t come every week, and they feel it, and I feel it, and I see it, and I see how it changes them,” she said.
As for herself, she had this to say:
I’ve changed, but I’m the same because I’m still idealistic. I’m not cynical, and I can’t be. Every time I meet some wonderful young person who sees the world as something they want to participate in and change for the better, I’m super inspired. You know, I love the kids. My whole life is filled with love right now. And that’s what’s going to change things into what they should be, is love.”
Feature photo: Portrait of Tracy Kostenbader by her friend Tara Zanzig, photographed by Isabel Carter. Photos: Tracy Kostenbader.