HPAC artist master of surprising

Herald Intern

Aliyah, a junior at the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts), lifted her foam horse from a piece of newspaper on the studio floor. An imperfection in the mold she had used left a large, saucer-shaped blob on its head, and she warned that she “hadn’t done it right.”

“But in the future, all horses are going to have these hats and talk our language,” her teacher said, chuckling as he nudged her back into the fantasy world of his exhibit.

Aliyah’s teacher, with whom she interns in Hyde Park, is Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, who is currently an artist-in-residence at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Steeped in the science fiction and popular television of a modern childhood, Hulsebos-Spofford’s work brings surprising performance to visual art, and the products of his aesthetic imagination out of the studio and into the real world.

Hulsebos-Spofford is a calm presence in his cluttered studio. His quiet demeanor and soft voice at first clashed with the unbridled enthusiasm that the number of projects around him suggested. But each printout and sketch on his wall seemed to bring out another neatly-packaged idea that widened his eyes and captured him again. A picture of the Midway Plaisance, covered in handwritten notes, sparks a story about horseback riders in the city and “fascist” imagery. An etching of a Spartan king who is often confused with Archimedes points to a lesson on what monuments are and what they can be. For Hulsebos-Spofford, these are the stories of a lifetime, the product of a career that has brought him to New York, Chicago, Italy and beyond.

After graduating from Bard College in New York with a BA in studio art, Hulsebos-Spofford came to Chicago to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Illinois. His first interest is sculpture, and he traveled to Sicily on a Fulbright grant to make traditional wooden boats, among other things. His list of residencies and awards has brought him to three states and a handful of major cities. In addition to teaching at ChiArts, he is beginning a career as a professor and lecturer at colleges.

The material that comprises Hulsebos-Spofford’s body of work has one thing in common: none of it can be represented in a physical portfolio. In Italy, he floated a replica of a shotgun shack from a scene in “Huckleberry Finn” down the Tiber River. After he learned of the pride Sicilian locals take in showing tourists the locations of episodes from “The Odyssey,” he staged a recreation of Odysseus’ escape from the cyclops using a raft made out of re-purposed fruit boxes.

“I get sort of stir crazy when things can’t go into the world,” Hulsebos-Spofford said. Later, he repeated, “I get really antsy about work that is just in a studio … I’m very interested in the spectacle and theater of objects.”

This means not only sometimes creating work that floats, but also making things that connect to a community and its problems. In college, that drive spurred Hulsebos-Spofford to create a non-profit which sent students to teach art in orphanages. In Italy, he created the Odyssey production to highlight local color. Here, he brought ChiArts students together in hopes of landing a “trash raft” on Oak Street Beach, 1000 N. Lake Shore Drive, to call attention to immigration issues in the city. (Legal issues forced the project to move outside Chicago, as reported in the Herald last May.) Most recently, Hulsebos-Spofford has proposed a project which would involve floating an extension of the DuSable Museum to a park downtown.

Though some projects took on weighty ideas, there is also a playful side to what goes on in the studio. The concept that drives the main body of Hulsebos-Spofford’s current work, which will be presented in April at the Hyde Park Art Center, is a fresh take on the equestrian statue. In the world of the exhibit, horses in the future are intelligent beings paid to stand in for their bronze predecessors, and so real horses will be in the gallery, at least for the opening. They will carry mostly whimsical saddles on their backs, instead of conquering generals.

“Why does it have to be some white guy who killed a lot of people and is forever commemorated in bronze?” Hulsebos-Spofford asked.
His saddles are abstract tributes to Joan of Arc and the lead from the 1990s movie “White Men Can’t Jump,” though Hulsebos-Spofford warned that the concept could change entirely by spring.

The exhibit will, perhaps, push at what Hulsebos-Spofford sees as the final frontier for his art.
“The main thing I’d like sculpture to do would be to time travel,” he said.