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  Interview w/ Sarah Beckstrom (Photographer)  
  By Chris Johnson, published in citylink newspaper  

Local artist Sarah Beckstrom founded and runs VITAL PROJECTS, a "center for creative development in photographic technique, thought and dialogue" that features darkroom facilites, a professional studio, workshops, and classes in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building. Today she held her session with the most advanced of her students in the Residency Program, now in its third year. While she offers classes in the basic foundations of photography, the Residency Program focuses on "the process of creating a body of work by exploring an emotion or idea and finding the space where the image rotates into your vision."

"Today, here's how I started my class. I'm in Humboldt Park, walking my dog, a beautiful day. And I was thinking 'what am I bringing to class tonight?', I was just wandering, experiencing the day and searching for that knowing, that zing of clarity. My eyes shift and I look down at all this garbage blown against a fence, and there's this article on Sebastio Salgado [established photographer recently shown at Chicago Cultural Center] blown face forward with the trash against the links." She pulled the copy through the opening in the chain-link struck with coincidence of her find.

"Something subtle and amazing just happened." Beckstrom explained. Today's class needed a push forward out of some preceding weeks of mental preparation and into process and shooting. As Beckstrom walked and considered what to bring to the classroom to provide this push forward, the photographer's article appears among the cruddy trash. It seems to be on purpose. It hits her. Right now - the question, the walking, the park and the fence and the figure (her), regarding and collecting this article scrap in a wet wintry Chicago park. Here is a visual. This was the point. Being ready and open, and knowing when it is presented to you.

Sarah discovered the camera in her last year of college. She'd come to Chicago via an arts program that brought students from midwestern colleges to the city to study art and work with professional artists. She studied painting and sculpture, but was most inspired by her first exposure to working artists living in an urban environment. She began taking pictures during her senior year, but couldn't get into any photography classes. So she taught herself. "I just locked myself in the darkroom. Without an instructor. I went through a lot of bad film and bad prints. That's how I became I good printer. I really had to learn to fix things in the darkroom."

After graduating, she knew she needed to get out of the United States and explore. She worked, often three jobs at once, for most of the year so she could afford to travel for a few months. She travelled extensively throughout Europe and Central America, visited Egypt and lived in Cyprus for a while, shooting pictures everywhere she went. "And the rest of the year I'd be processing and printing. I'd be starting with negatives that weren't that great. Slaving over these poor negatives to make an aesthetic print. So I spent the rest of the year, print, print, print."

But her breakthrough came when she decided to travel the American West. With no real plan and short on cash, she ended up in the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA. The arts center gave her a chance to live and work with others artists while her ideas incubated. On her way back to Chicago, she shot the roll that would feature in her first professional show, Seeing Don Juan. Inspired by the mystical writings of Carlos Castenada, the 11x14 photographs were arranged in an 8 foot by 9 foot grid. The bottom right hand image was that of a crow, the alter ego of Don Juan, the Mexican sorcerer and mentor characterized in Castenada's books.

She rented a store front in Lincoln Park and launched GALLERY S, a proto version of her current school and studio. Selling her work and working to support it became taxing. She met another artist interested in establishing a space for exhibit and workshops, and Vital Projects was born in 1999 in its current location at the Flat Iron Building. Within a year, Beckstrom had taken the reigns, expanded the programs, and ran the space solo.

Earlier this year Beckstrom was among the first of a growing group of local artists to move into the Garfield Park Artists' Building to separate her personal creative space from her Vital Projects space. She moved in a piano and started to compose. She shot a digital video earlier this year to be edited by spring. She is designing installations to incorporate the different outlets her creative process has taken, all the while teaching, and showing her students' work in the Around the Coyote art walk and other Flat Iron venue exhibitions.

Beckstrom takes the true D.I.Y. approach to exhibiting her work, forgoing the process of gallery shows, juried fairs, et al by opening her own venue and showing the work there. Her upcoming show, however, will not be held in her Vital Projects space, but in the southside arts district of Pilsen with a group of artists she met at the Flat Iron. Her newest series of photography, SHADOW, will be shown for the first time publicly with the Chicago Artists' Collective at the 2003 Winter Festival of Art, marking a new abstracted direction from her prior work which has been more direct and representational. Beckstrom describes this series as "an ethereal grid of silver prints, figurative shadows, shifting and moving, lit up from behind. It is a return to a simple form and aesthetic. There is a feeling of not being present, where I was, like not knowing anything with certainty of mind but with certainty of vision. The shadow symbolizes a part of yourself that you don't quite see, but know is there."

Beckstrom will show Shadow Series and other work including a planned installation in a group show with artists Jojo Baby, E.K. Buckley, David Moskow and David Pearson at 1824 South Halsted December 11, 12-5pm-8pm, and Dec 13, 14-10am-6pm. Further information regarding this show is available on the Chicago Artists' Collective website, Further information about the resources available at Vital Projects is online at Vital Projects Studio is located at 1579 N. Milwaukee Avenue, studio number 230, (773) 489-0455.


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