Maria Tirabassi/Humility Gallery
Interview with Maria Tirabassi of Humility Gallery also known as Maria Tirabassi Gallery in Pilsen, Chicago, December 2012
LH: What is Maria Tirabassi gallery?
MT: Well it is actually Humility gallery. The name came from humorously thinking about situations where artists may find themselves having paint on their shoes, for example. I also thought about the space and how it socially fit in the US. Until you arrive with conventional recognition, you’re kind of a bum, and the gallery recognizes that. So if you’re Avant-garde or innovative there will be a time delay for validation. Sometimes that even happens here in Pilsen. For example, a Parisian artist in the neighborhood had to go back to Paris because everyone treated her well there but she couldn’t stand Pilsen. That’s why we formed Pilsen Art Nation. Humility Gallery tries to steer away from pretentiousness as much as possible.
LH: What Pilsen Art Nation?
MT: Pilsen Art Nation was a very concerned group of artists in Pilsen East of Halsted who founded 2nd Fridays in order to form a stronger union of creative artists and writers. It was a feedback community full of communication, language, criticism and that was vital to maintaining merit and innovation in art.
LH: When was Pilsen Art Nation created?
MT: Around 2004.
LH: When did you open this space?
MT: Around 911, so in 2001.
LH: You said you started at the Flat Iron Arts building and left because of gentrification and issues with the owners who would act a certain way towards female artists, correct?
MT: Yes, I put in the kitchen and created access to the bathroom and they turned that into six units and made money from it. That led me to open this space in Pilsen in 2001.
LH: Once you opened this space how did Humility gallery begin incorporating itself into the Pilsen art community?
MT: Once the space was open we held art openings as often as possible for as many artists as possible. Not to mention it was multidisciplinary: live jazz, poetry, spoken word, and few film festivals, and there was a ripple affect. Reclusive artists in Pilsen were coming out and we wanted to make it less art for arts sake and more art with a purpose. Then artists started being able to fund their art and create more of it.
LH: Pilsen has changed so much in ten years when it comes to the arts. How did that happen?
MT: What happened was a bigger corporate real-estate person had been capitalizing on artists but not promoting them and he took over the idea that was going on in Pilsen and took credit for it. It was a marriage of concepts, and it was out of our control. It turned out to be hugely successful, but the artists’ mission planted the seed, it was an incredible combination of capitalism and artist thinking.
LH: Can you tell me a little about your art making process and how it relates to your set up here at Humility Gallery?
MT: I like to think that there is only a plane of glass between the street and myself. This is a fishbowl gallery. The windows have a triple purpose: They provide light so I can paint, and there’s the sharing thing when people can see through the glass. But, it really keeps it very real because I’ strongly connect with the homeless community of Pilsen.
LH: How is your gallery connected to the local homeless community? When thinking about most galleries that are higher-end, there is such a vast difference between the classes of society involved in those higher priced art markets compared to the homeless. The separation between upper and lower class is very evident there.
MT: The truth is that I’ve discovered many things from the reciprocal charity between the homeless and myself. Most of the homeless are incredibly spiritual people and they are very misunderstood which brings us to a common denominator between a somewhat experimental painter and people living in transition. They are perceived as criminal and a small percentage are.
LH: Do members of the local homeless community frequent Humility Gallery?
MT: Yes and they’ve saved my life a few times and I have saved theirs. The homeless were in my film, but sad to say I’ve seen many killed, throats slit and worse, and just people on medication. But they have appreciated the art, I’ve painted them, they have had great critiques. Sometimes you have to put up with some things like the smell of liquor, but whatever.
LH: Can you describe your art style in your painting and other medium?
MT: I guess you can say I’m a Naïve expressionist and the continuity for me is love, joy and color. However my films, I can’t help it but I’ve evolved from my masters in theater. I definitely have a John Cassavetes take on film, without necessarily trying to be like Cassavetes, but its also similar to Fellini without trying to be.
LH: Are your films more experimental or are they traditional narrative?
MT: People say that its ‘New Genre,’ and ‘eclectic.’ Its long duration because there’s a lot of character development.
LH: Would you say you do more painting or more film projects?
MT: Well with my one film, it was an 8-year project and I did a couple other documentaries and I have two or three scripts in the works, narratives pretty much. But pretty much, it’s a balance between the music and music vides, painting, theater, and film. The gallery is a space of creation and I’m really fortunate to have this space, to do this and work with other artists. It’s so different without Michael here.
LH: Who is Michael?
MT: Michael Garcia is in the recent 5 years someone who I have collaborated with in a highly intuitive way, with music, writing, painting, and all of it. For some time, 3 years, the two of us were creating in this gallery, and for another year and a half we were in Bogota, Colombia and Miami.
LH: Have any other artists contributed significantly to the space besides you and Michael?
MT: Yes the music scene involved hundreds of musicians. The gallery has been a venue for musicians prior to Michael’s time here. Christopher L. Peditto was also a significant founder and important participant in the Humility Gallery music scene. That little stage area in the gallery with all the art on it is where bands would perform.
LH: So I’m assuming you found that a lot of people from the street would come to your events?
MT: Yes, and even the police understood that. It was an all-ages, non-alcoholic venue that was highly creative. A lot of people from the neighborhood came. Doors were open. We had to move a lot of the art out of the gallery when people would start mosh-pitting and stuff, and sometimes paintings would fall from the vibrations and people would have to catch the art. There was creativity everywhere, painting, music, and people. Many artists started doing art from the inspiration of it. There were experiences created here, great photography also. We did keep the press minimal though.
LH: As in you didn’t advertise the event?
MT: Yes, there were advertisements and we promoted it but we didn’t want the generic mentality.
LH: You wanted it to be more special?
MT: Right, I wanted to keep it for the real individual, with freedom of speech, yet also respectful, expressive and humorous.
LH: The gallery used to be open to the public and now is by appointment only. Why is that?
MT: The city was very forceful with me. I’m not sure how much I want to get into that. The more successful I got, more unwanted people started coming around and there were bullies and stalkers.
LH: I used to work at a space called Vegan Gallery. It was a raw space which consisted of 20 artists who would curate their works on their own designated wall space. They would hold parties all the time and we would get a lot of drunk people from the street coming in. Sometimes I wonder if all the bad attention somewhat led to their demise.
MT: Yes, and that’s why we have gone through different phases here at Humility Gallery. There have been dormant phases with more subtle creativity and more open-door phases of sharing.
LH: How do you feel about the merging of art and life and how does this pertain to Humility Gallery?
MT: Although I’m more connected with the process than the result, 3000 of my paintings have been collected, and what I’m told is that my art brings great joy to the people who have it. It’s almost all sold. I’m not able to give it away too much. They find it uplifting and that is a goal of mine, to make uplifting art, and it may look simple but it isn’t. Its definitely intuitive art.
LH: Can you elaborate? What would you say to someone who thought your art was simple?
MT: Live with the piece for a while, and you’ll start to discover how it changes in the light, how there are subtle things in the image, often movement. And I’m not going to hide the fact that I have seizures. I truly feel that some of my art is altered state like, there’s no denying I have altered states and it is in the work.
LH: Is it important that you communicate your health issues to people that buy your art?
MT: No. What is not said is just as important as what is said, but I will say, in an opportunity like this to communicate, I must say that I have very little recall of panting technique. I have to continually rediscover it in my process.
LH: How do you see yourself in reference to the higher echelons of the art world here in Chicago and the more fine-art galleries? You are all part of the Chicago art scene, so how do you navigate the difference?
MT: Ironically, my art is hanging next to Chagall’s, Picasso’s, Matisse’s, and in Colombia it’s with a Botero sculpture, not to mention Italian classics, so it’s very peculiar. I think, there-in lies the honesty of the canvas. There’s a fine line between poverty and great renowned works. There is beauty in the subjectivity of art, the freedom of displaying art, and the freedom of presentation. This gallery is a living gallery, a studio gallery that now I call the “Art Forest.” Other galleries tend to cater to the needs of their buyers, and sometimes that is wonderful but sometimes it leads to an unfortunately more sterile and squeaky-clean environment and goes more towards the marketing rather than the human condition. I think that the playfulness of art, keeping the fun, the uplifting, the silliness, is just as important as delving into the dramatic and sometimes tragic conditions. So I care about uplifting the human spirit, to explore that as much as possible and share that beauty and truth. Discovery is key, and I try to allow my art collector to have this discovery process. (Laughs) Although sometimes it’s funny when a handful of people think they have discovered me.
Maria likes to keep her prices low because she feels that makes the art more accessible to people. She claims other galleries may go the route of wanting their artists to get a few thousand dollars for a painting, but that limits the class of people that can afford it. Maria does not want to limit her art for anyone and has posted many of her videos and music on You Tube.