Long Tours Lead to Unexpected Art Forms

July 16, 2010

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Being in a rock band seems so glamorous. Being on the road, touring? Not so much. This disparity has been a frequent subject of documentaries and even mockumentaries. Now it's the focus of an unusual art project that opens tonight in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood.

NOTE: The show opens tonight and continues through August 7 at Johalla  Projects.

This is the scene: a dirty old van that could break down any minute.

It's filled to the brim with equipment and band members who have been together for weeks and are getting a little tired of seeing each other. There's no time to stop between gigs. That can mean peeing in a jar, and napping in sleeping bags.

Andrea Jablonski  is an artist and musician who's traveled extensively.

JABLONSKI: The allure is that you get catered to and you're in a comfortable huge bus. But the reality is you're in a van that has really bad gas mileage so you're put most of the money you make every night into the tank or into food.

LEGER: The worst of it is when you've been out for 10 weeks and you realize not only do you have no privacy, it's not going to change soon.

That's Noah Leger, drummer for Head of Skulls.

You'd think all this downtime when you're touring would just dull the senses. But it's become the source of artistic inspiration -- and not just song lyrics.

The musicians in this art show, called The Art of Touring, are stepping outside their usual medium. They've done paintings, photographs, videos  and sketches.

On long van rides, Loto Ball keeps a sketchbook.

He plays trumpet with the punk marching band Mucca Pazza. 

He opens it up and points to a picture he drew of a person who's inside a suitcase and carrying it at the same time.

LOTO BALL: It's like being a prisoner of yourself in a way and the tour manager and the rest of the band. You do try to find your own space any way you can, and I think the sketchbook is a manifestation of that.

LEECH: People make beautiful things, even when they're not on stage making beautiful things.

Guitarist and wood-worker Richard Leech's contribution to the show wasn't quite so beautiful -- and that was on purpose.

He rebuilt his touring van's dingy old loft. That's a small wooden platform where band members sometimes have to sleep.

LEECH: It's glorious fun, the most fun ever. You wouldn't put up with all the stupidity and discomfort if it weren't for it being one of the best things in the world.

The show's co-curator, Andrea Jablonski, was surprised at how willing some artists were to reveal their personal lives  in photos and other work.

JABLONSKI: There's a few where maybe they're not super sober or super clean or super rock-star looking or maybe they're caught in a really funny moment on stage or they're doodling some crazy stuff. It's really personal, and you kind of have to have a thick skin to get through it.

She was inspired  to create this artistic gathering by the book, The Art of Touring, that collected the art of musicians. Jablonski  wanted to feature Chicago artists.

She and gallery director Anna Cerniglia collaborated. They called up musicians they know who create art and roped in others through the grapevine.

Like Patrick Sansone, a multi-instrumentalist with Wilco. He's been taking Polaroids on the road for several years.

He doesn't consider himself a photographer. But he was excited when asked to display his work here.

SANSONE: I didn't feel any pressure to be great at it or have anything to prove with it. It was just something for pure, playful enjoyment. Any creative person, any kind exercise like that is going to be positive.

He says the photos help him document and remember time that would otherwise be lost.

But for musician, Loto Ball, the work he does in his sketchbook  is an escape.

BALL:  You're kind of protected from reality, so you can go into the surreality and just live there. Then the van parks and you have to get outside and deal with the rest of it and put your book away.

If he didn't have his art, Loto Ball says he'd spent a lot of time annoying other band member out of boredom. He says he's a lot nicer on the road when he has his sketchbook.

Lynette Kalsnes, WBEZ.