The Zhou B Art Center, a converted factory building in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, is sleek looking, painted black, with lyrical steel statues outside. The day I visited, it was an unusually warm day for October, the back loading door was open, and a soft breeze was coming through the gallery. I was greeted by the art of the Zhou Brothers, marble statues and the Water Lily series — timeless paintings that seem to contain secret messages from ages ago.
The art center, founded in 2004 by the Zhou Brothers, has always dedicated itself to being a site of exchange between local artists and the global community — with an emphasis on the intersection of eastern and western traditional art. There is a strong sense of community in every aspect of the center. With over 50 residency programs and monthly changing exhibitions, the Zhou B Art Center serves as one of the greatest platforms for Chicago artists, in addition to the extensive community outreach. This past week, I had the opportunity to meet with Michael Zhou, the executive director of the center, and tour around the art center, Zhou brothers studio, and the Arts Foundation. These spaces compose multiple blocks of the neighborhood of Bridgeport Chicago, and Michael explained the ways in which they plan to continue to expand.
How do you find the Zhou Brothers’ philosophy of life (or their background in creating artwork together and honoring nature that they grew up around in China) influence the mission of Zhou B Art Center?
The Zhou Brothers’ philosophy “feeling is liberty” sums up the spirit of any artist’s creation – to express themselves without any limit and reach freedom through art. While the Zhou Brothers were teaching in Europe, they realized how important a stage and a platform could be for artists. They imagined an environment created and kept solely for artists where artists could reach creative freedom, and decided this would be their dream. One day they realized they truly had the ability and belief to construct this environment and realize their dream, and thus was created the Zhou B Art Center. We hope in history we are able to create a home for artists and paradise for creation.
What have been some great recent exhibitions at Zhou B Art Center?
Currently we have EVERYTHING: Jeff Zimmermann Solo Exhibition on view until November 10th. Jeff Zimmermann is widely known for commissioned mural paintings across the city. However, his more experimental works from his studio are less shown. This is his first exhibition in ten years to showcase his studio art, ranging from magnificent large paintings to socially rooted installations.
The couple of exhibitions we’ve had in the past few months are Centerline and Elegant Disruption. Centerline is a signature biennial here where all the resident artists at the art center bring together their works. It’s a highly versatile show as each artist has a different approach towards art: abstract or realistic paintings, crazy installations, fascinating fabric and jewelries. Elegant Disruption is an exhibition curated by Joseph Ravens, known as the director of the celebrated performance art nonprofit in Chicago, Defibrillator Gallery. Elegant Disruption references “social sculpture,” a theoretical hypothesis by Joseph Bueys, often considered the pioneer for socially engaged art today. In this show, we saw protest banners, performances and images that reflect immigration and cultural identity issues, and works revealing problematic industries including animation and horticulture, all of which encouraged viewers to contemplate the reality behind what’s presented in today’s world.
Next month we will welcome a photography solo show by British artist Abigail Zoe Martin, Chicago Lights, opening on November 16th. The concept of the exhibition was conceived in 2015 when Abigail relocated to Chicago from London. Driven by a sense of isolation from family and friends, she went in search of connections to Chicagoans from all walks of life, and the result is nothing but a breathtaking and touching exhibition capturing faces from citizens to politicians, artists to doctors, sportsman to priests, and many more. A great way to stay tuned for our upcoming programs and exhibitions is to go to our website www.zhoubartcenter.com, and subscribe for our monthly e- newsletter.
What is your perception of the art scene in Chicago, or in Bridgeport specifically?
In 1986, the Zhou Brothers were the first and only artists to move to Bridgeport. Even though they didn’t know too much about the neighborhood, they had a good chemistry and felt this was a great place for creativity. The Brothers set up their studio here, and have been here ever since. They built up the Zhou Brothers Foundation in 1992, and founded the Zhou B Art Center in 2004, both in this neighborhood. Today in Bridgeport you can see more than a couple thousand artists around, yet Bridgeport stays humble, down to the earth, and connected to the people while all the creative activities are floating around. This quality is especially important for artists, as being an artist is not an easy path. It takes a great amount of perseverance before it presents the rewards. The humble characteristics of Bridgeport give its resident the strength to walk firmly on their paths towards the goals. That’s why Bridgeport has been our home since day one, and it will be home to more artists and many others.
The Zhou B Art Center seems to be an institution in Bridgeport, what is your relationship, as an organization, with the people and places in that neighborhood?
A community cannot thrive on only one spot. Over the years the art center has built steady growth, meanwhile we have observed quite some development around the blocks: more and more restaurants are stepping towards Bridgeport, especially from Chinatown; coffee shops and bars are budding across the area; more vendors and events are choosing to take place here. On one hand, the arts attract people over, who become customers to the businesses here; on the other hand, the surrounding infrastructure fosters the image of Bridgeport as a livable area, and bring visitors and residents here. Together, Zhou B Art Center and the people and places in the neighborhood embrace each other and make Bridgeport a more integrated community that shares resources and supports each other, while remaining open and relatable to all.
How do you envision the ways in which the Zhou B center will continue to grow and serve the community?
In the near future, art education is going to be one of our main focuses, and our new center in Kansas City will enable us to connect art education resources on an international level. Partnering with Guangxi University in China, we plan to build a Zhou B Art Academy in our Kansas City location, which will become a home for cultural exchange to scholars and students from China and the US. Upon completion, we will be able to connect artists, visitors, students and scholars from Chicago, Kansas City, and China, and present Bridgeport and our community to a higher level of exchange, enabling them to extend academic, artistic and business advancement with more diverse resources.