Interview With Chicago Social Practice Artist Catherine Schwalbe

by Taylor Alcantar, Slag Glass City Editorial Internsewing-forgiveness-at-wplcThe kitchen for the bakery downstairs was next door and the entire second floor of Lil Street Art Center smelled like bacon, hot herbal tea, and varnish—a strange but pleasing combination. Catherine Schwalbe told me I would know I’d found her studio when I saw “two corn cobs.” I found them—yellow, ceramic, glazed, and a foot tall each—resting in a wire cage outside her door, not far from a set of vintage, rectangular suitcases and a large sign that read in sprawling cursive letters, SEWING FORGIVENESS.

A few moments later I would see this was only the beginning. Overflow from Catherine’s art—completed and in progress—filled her small studio. Later, when I asked Catherine her opinion on art in the living city she thought for a moment, sipping her tea, and said, “I think art shouldn’t be separate from our lives; it should be intertwined. Art and life. Spirituality and life. It’s in everything we say and do and, hopefully, think. Art is not something we hang on a wall or go see in a white wall space. It’s in us and in our world.”

I saw that credo reflected in Catherine’s studio. Once a white-walled space, every inch and cranny was filled with Catherine’s passions.

When I spoke with her Catherine had just completed her Sewing Forgiveness tour, a social practice art happening in which she traveled around the city to converse with Chicagoans about forgiveness and sew buttons onto their clothing to remind them of their conversation.

Catherine admits of her tour, “I’ve had mixed reviews.”

I’ll admit: If I was walking through a park or a recreational center and saw Catherine with her Sewing Forgiveness signs, her luggage, her collection of used buttons, and then she offered to sew an old button on my clothing as we discussed what forgiveness meant, I’d be skeptical too. At least at first.

Yet as I sat across from Catherine, her voice weaving ideas back and forth like a needle sewing a button in place, I could see why so many stopped to talk with her or even sought her out. Those human interactions, the foundation of her Sewing Forgiveness tour, took her from one side of Chicago to the other, and led the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs to include her on their list of 20 artists featured in October 2014 as a part of Chicago Artists Month.

Taylor Alcantar: Why social practice art and why Chicago?

Catherine Schwalbe: When I was 23 I moved here because my boyfriend lived here. We got married a little over a year later. That was 1984. I’ve been here ever since and it’s home. For much of my adult life I have been a recreational therapist and I just made the connection a few months ago, that this work is probably why the social practice aspect comes incredibly naturally to my art practice. The Sewing Forgiveness piece that has been getting some attention here in the last several months was inspired by my divorce and me trying to figure out what this forgiveness is supposed to look like.

T.A: Where did the recycled buttons come in?

C.S: The old buttons were something that I physically had in my life already and I wanted to use them, symbolically, while I was getting rid of things. The artist Barbara Koenen, called my attention to the aspect of mending. That’s really nice. Sometimes when people lose a button they say they can’t wear that shirt anymore. I say: get another button!

T.A: How do people react to Sewing Forgiveness and what do people say when they walk up to you?

C.S: I’ve had people who get it immediately and walk over with their chests puffed out and say, “Please, I need a button.” People also visibly walk away from me but still look. Or some shrug. At the end of my two-month tour, I arrived at a Beverly florist shop, Blossom Boys, and there were people waiting! A woman at the florist walked up to me and said, “You know, I’ve been divorced for 20 years and I know that I need to forgive.” 20 years!

Sewing Forgiveness in action

Sewing Forgiveness in action. Photo by Jeff Stevenson.

T.A: Was there any significance to the places that you chose to go?

C.S: Some of them had significance in history. Like Marquette Park, where Martin Luther King walked and had bricks and rocks thrown at him and the marchers. I did it at my church, Wicker Park Lutheran, twice. I wanted to do it where the North and South branch [of the Chicago river] meet because I think we need to be forgiven for changing the direction of the river. [In 1900 city planners changed the direction of the Chicago River so that sewage would travel downstate rather than into Lake Michigan]. So, there were sites that I chose like that and others that just made sense when I looked for places on the map to spell out the word. [Catherine refers here to her painting of Chicago, on which every stop of her tour is a dot connected by the word Forgive: Photo Below]


T.A: What did you learn through your conversations as you traveled around the city and sewed on buttons?

C.S: I learned forgiveness is a pretty universal want. It’s a struggle. I think many want to know honestly what forgiveness looks like, what that means, but it’s not necessarily tangible. A part of the obvious symbolism is that this is the baggage we carry with us. As I went in and out of a studio with these suitcases, which are heavy, because there are five of them, people asked me “can I help you with that?” and I said, “nope, this is my own baggage. I have to carry it in and out, and up the steps, and back down.”

Another thing I’ve learned is how big and how wonderful the city is and how I feel more connected to it than ever. I looked at statistics of how big the Grand Canyon is; at its widest it’s 18 miles and Chicago at its longest is 22. So this tour has been a kind of urban Grand Canyon experience for me.

T.A: It seems like Sewing Forgiveness has been as much of a healing experience for you as the people you’ve talked to.

C.S: The piece was born out of wondering about forgiveness and then in June my ex-husband moved out of state. I had to feel some things all over again. When Georgia O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, died she made her biggest painting. So this is my biggest painting, across the whole city. It’s taken me a while to say that out loud.

In September my minister wrapped his whole sermon around my piece. Some members walked up to me afterward crying, saying “I didn’t know what all of this meant.” I think it’s important in social practice art to not tell people all that the work is about, but wait to see what comes out in response. I don’t want to spoon feed either; I don’t think that’s the artist’s role. So when people came up to me visibly crying and helping me with my bags, it was pretty beautiful.

I shared with my pastor that I was thinking I wanted to throw my suitcases out of a 10-story building as a punctuation to the piece. He responded, ‘how about the church steeple?’ It’s actually a four-sided bell tower with big arched windows. I went to church the following Sunday and I looked up and I just laughed at the idea of members of the congregation and the community being involved and tossing their baggage out. This might be a culmination to this whole thing, maybe in the spring when it’s time to clean house.

My minster and I haven’t had a serious discussion about it yet, but he said, “I’m not sure about our liability insurance.”

And I said, “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 1 • November 2014
For more about Catherine Schwalbe and her art visit her website