Art Bus Brings Culture to Neighborhoods

November 8, 2007

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Fred Burkhart with his bus.

The Chicago Transit Authority could still raise fares come January if the state doesn't come through with a permanent funding solution. But if you're looking to hop on a bus for free, you might consider the Burkhart Bus. Since June, artist Fred Burkhart has been taking his re-tooled bus to different locations and events to showcase his art and create what he calls spontaneous culture.

Fred Burkhart has lived in Chicago for a very long time. When he moved to what is now called Boystown, the neighborhood was known as Newtown.

He once owned a neighborhood coffeehouse and performance space there called The Burkhart Underground. He says it attracted lots of young people, artists, musicians and poets.

Not long ago though, the building was sold and demolished to make way for condos.

BURKHART: And I had to relocate and that was like a big event and rather than get lost in the cracks I said that a bus would be excellent, people will see me. They'd say, 'Oh there's Burkhart, we thought he died, he's an old man.' And I'm up moving around and it keeps me in touch.

Burkhart bought the old school bus off Ebay from a man in Columbus, Ohio, for two grand. He says the man had already torn out the seats and installed light brown carpeting.

Burkhart painted the outside of the 24-foot bus a mix of purple, green and aqua.

Taped to the windows on the right side of the bus are two dozen or so postcard sized pencil drawings of Burkhart's. They're portraits of various famous people that look out at passersby.

BURKHART: And that stops people cuz they can identify with a picture of George Harrison or Nick Zed, a New York filmmaker. Some of them are done from my photographs like the Ginsburg, I spent a couple of week with him in the Catskill Mountains...we slept in seperate bedrooms.

Inside, there's a low table with candles, wax hangs from them like stalactites.

The main attraction-besides Burkhart's sense of humor-is crates filled with hundreds of black and white photos he's taken over 40 years. They're broken down into categories such as Maxwell Street and Venice Beach 1967. There are also photos of his 21-year-old daughter Valentine, when she was young.

Burkhart's idea of taking art or culture to the people is nothing new.

BURKHART: Claude Monet had a houseboat and floated down the Seine River and entertained clients. When I was out in California in the '60s, the San Francisco Mine Troupe, they would just pull up in the buses everywhere and come out and do theater. Artists are respsonsible for creating culture. So I always wanted to present art in a truer environment, like right out on the sidewalk, where anybody can walk right in.

Burkhart parks the bus across the street from the Old Town School of Folk Music on a recent mild Saturday afternoon.

Two musicians came along for the ride. One of them is a woman who goes by Rebecca F.

REBECCA: Fred and I met at Walgreens on Diversey and Halsted, right by his old place. And he had a bunch of cups  and I said, 'where's the party?' and we quickly became friends. He told me about his coffee shop and I came on Sunday and I played. Also very impressed with the whole environment. Fred is a true artist, a genius. 

Only a few people go on the bus, others watch the musicians or their kids dance to the music. Burkhart admits he needs to be more vocal about letting folks know that there's art inside the bus. 

BURKHART: There'll be an area here where it's going to be Burkhart Studios dot com. You know hours, open walk in but I haven't done that yet… I just painted the initial bus, threw my name on it and they're just getting a feel for it in the last three or four months. But by spring I'll have that but by spring I'll have that all worked out.

He's also thinking about including other people's art, and maybe staging poetry readings, and other forms of art, to create instant and active community among strangers.

So keep your eye out for the Burkhart Bus- you never know where it's going to show up next.