Shop Conversations: Laura Miracle

Laura Miracle: I might just say as an introduction, I’m a sculptor . . . I have an MFA in making things, and that context is useful.

Nathan Smith: Yes, indeed! What is your title here?

LM: I’m the woodworking department manager, and an instructor in the woodworking department [at Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center].

NS: I would like to talk about that in a bit, but first, I’d like to talk about all the other things you are up to right now. . . .

LM: [Laughter]

NS: . . . if you’re up for talking about that.

LM: Yeah! I have a lot of irons in the fire. I just got a message from someone who’s interested in having me create some sewn bags – so that’s a whole other thing that I probably haven’t previously shared with you. . . . I have a few different dream business plans for functional art. I’m really interested in tool belts and tool organization, which of course connects to being the shop manager – that’s part of why I’m here, because I just love tools, and I love being organized.

NS: When I first started working here, I would just like . . . wander around the woodshop, just staring at stuff, I think because the order is aesthetically appealing and kind of – maybe a little bit strangely – of the things I was seeing here, I was like: this is the most visually pleasing, just how the tools were set up looks right.

LM: Well, that makes me really happy.

NS: The way I came up with the idea for the Blueprints exhibit was from basically wandering around the woodshop, your walls look like this exhibit. . . .

LM: Oh yeah! So, part of that has to do with that I really believe in giving things space, and that’s part of making it easy to get access to tools, right? So when you’re talking about the tools being arranged in such a way that first – I like to have hangers or supports for the tools that only fit that one particular tool so it makes it intuitive for returning them, and that has to do with the years of experience that I’ve had in community-built shop environments, where you have people who don’t necessarily know what things are called. It’s not enough to just put a piece of tape that says “slip-joint pliers,” because –

NS: I don’t know what that is. . . .

LM: – if you don’t know what slip-joint pliers are, then it doesn’t help. But if you can look at the shape of the tool and match it to the shape of the holder, then you have at least another clue as to where that thing should be stored.

NS: It’s kinda like those kids puzzles where the apple goes in the shape of an apple.

LM: Yeah! You’ve figured me out . . . in my artwork, I’ve done a lot of exploration of things that fit other things very exactly. I made a series of sculptures, and created boxes with lined fabric receptacles for those pieces – and those things fit just exactly in there, and I get a great amount of satisfaction from that – putting the apple piece into the apple spot. It’s really . . . it feels really good. It also fits into the [Door Chandelier] I made too. That was part of what that was about – trying to match the profile of that found door with the cutting on the bandsaw.  

NS: So, tools, tool belts, bags. . . .

LM: Two years ago, I took a leatherworking class at the Chicago School of Shoemaking and got myself set up with an industrial sewing machine. I have that set up, which I’m really excited to start maximizing – but, as you know, the struggle of keeping the bills paid and the incoming coming in is a very real struggle.

NS: Do you have a working studio?

LM: I have a dining room that – well, air quotes dining room – I have a studio in my kitchen. So that’s something that I’m still very interested in. And my idea, my plan is to have the tool belt and tool carrying systems be kind of a winter pursuit because, in the spring and summer I’m really working on being a garden designer.

Raised beds

Raised beds

LM: I build raised beds for people, and I build garden enclosures, trellises, and garden stuff made out of wood. . . . I love working with cedar. That’s generally the material that I’m using. Time will tell what the lifespan of these constructions will be, but I’ve been at this for about two-three years, and so far of the things that I’ve made, they’ve all weathered to a really beautiful silvery-gray color, and there’s no real sign of any kind of decay or damage. That’s in terms of the objects, but I am working towards becoming a full-on gardener in the sense that there is a potential for what I call subscription, where someone has a set of raised beds, and they basically contract you for the growing season to kind of come out and manage the ongoing care of the garden, including succession planning – where it’s like, once this plant is done you pull that out and what are you going to put in next? Where you’re trying to plan double seasons overall, as well as knowing soil requirements, and light requirements, and all that.

Garden enclosure

Garden enclosure

NS: The first year we had a garden, we basically tried to get someone else to do it. . . .

LM: [Laughs]

NS: . . . because, you know, we’re especially bad at the succession part. We put stuff in, but that would be the only thing that would go there for the entire year, and it is just a fraction of it’s potential . . . Do you do a combination of edible and decorative, or?

LM: I’m actually entirely interested in growing food. It has to do with this thing for me that . . . you know, understanding where our food comes from is just really important and fascinating pursuit. I feel strongly that we should all be working to be more connected to the food we consume. So, that’s not quite a political thing for me, but almost there.

New raised beds

New raised beds

NS: It’s an environmental thing in the sense that it’s your immediate environment, and you would like to be more conscious of it?

LM: Right.

NS: We have a garden. And still, some of the people who have access to it – there’s a wild disconnect, wherein they won’t take stuff to eat out of it, unless it’s brought indoors to them. It’s like a combination of not knowing if things are ready, or something. . . .

LM: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying –

NS: It’s really strange.

LM: Yeah, definitely. Well, I’ll share this with you . . . I just started a garden just outside my new apartment, which was kind of a big decision for me, to put all that time and effort into that, because I’m a renter, and so this is what stopped me in the past from having a garden . . . I didn’t want to do it, but I’m at this place where it seemed really important for me to have my own growing space. So I planted spinach and mesclun greens and buttercrunch lettuce and carrots and beets – and then the squirrels ate all the seedlings. And it was so heartbreaking, but is was also really grossing me out, because that means – ahh, eww, ahh –

The enemy

The enemy

NS: That’s the disconnect . . .

LM: That’s what I’m saying.

NS: . . . that stuff’s in the world.

LM: I know, and like there aren’t squirrels on farms other places?

NS: Well . . . there might not be tons of squirrels in like, the middle of Iowa or whatever . . .

LM: That’s true.

NS: . . . maybe there are, I don’t know.

LM: There are animals though, for sure. And this idea that the food that you get from the supermarket has never been a part of nature – is obviously just silly.

NS: We rent too, and we didn’t set out to have a garden, but at Roman Susan we put together this exhibit where it was decided that rather than building pedestals – we priced it out – we found we could have Home Depot deliver two hundred cinder blocks to us and we could make them out of stacked cinder blocks. And then, of course, the exhibit was over and we had two hundred cinder blocks . . . and we were just like, what the hell are we going to do with these things?

LM: [Laughter]

NS: So, I convinced my landlord to let us have these cinder block beds. So, it’s the same thing – it’s kind of a wild amount of effort someone who is renting, but it’s really cool that they’re there, and there are all these guys that hang out in front of our house, because there are a lot of group homes everywhere around there, and they hang out at the bus bench in front of our house to smoke. Anyway, they are always telling me, Oh yeah! The mice – not mice. The rats come and visit your garden every night. And I’m just like, yeah, shrugs.

LM: Yeah, what are you going to do?

NS: The annoying thing is – they don’t like tomatoes, but they will bite one every night to make sure they still don’t like them.

LM: Yeah, it’s so maddening. Yeah, so that’s actually the project that I was working on today, the triangle I was making is going to be part of a series of supports for frames for my garden that will have either mesh, or – the idea I’m working under is that it’s going to be both to keep rodents out in the summer, but then also those panels can be switched out for plexiglass panels to make it into a cold frame in the spring. So the triangle is just to set over the bed and then the screens or the plexiglass fit in over.

NS: There’s a lot of other green stuff around our garden, yard, trees, et cetera. And so lots of rodents just get distracted, there’s plenty to go around. There are tons of rabbits, so we put marigolds around everything because they don’t like their scent, plus rabbits don’t like nightshades? So that’s good. But, well, rats and stuff – not to be deterred by the scent of anything.

Pest protection

Pest protection

LM: I did the cayenne pepper thing too. So after the initial destruction, I did an entire shaker of cayenne pepper over all the seedlings, and now they are coming back, and the squirrels have stayed away, but it just rained like crazy last night, I we’re going to have to go buy more cayenne. But that feels pretty good, because you just wash it off, and it’s fine. And I actually have marigolds around, too, although not in a solid border – maybe that’s the thing, it needs to be like. . . .

NS: Squirrels can fly.

LM: Yeah, squirrels can fly. So I’m covering with mesh, that’s really how I solve that.

NS: We have scarecrows, which endears us to our neighbors, I'm sure.

Cinder block garden beds plus scarecrow

Cinder block garden beds plus scarecrow

NS: So, you have other projects too, yes?

LM: Yeah. Yeah, but wait – there’s more! I am also an art director for an artistic collaborative performance group based out of Humboldt Park called Opera-Matic, which does free performances in the parks. I work with a team of artists to do these collaborative installations and participatory art events. It’s kind of hard to describe – but yeah, I do art direction for them.



NS: Because it is in public parks, do you feel you have a lot of interaction with people who would not be engaging with art otherwise?

LM: That is absolutely true, and in fact that’s the goal for Opera-Matic – to engage audiences that are not traditionally served by theatre. We get a fair amount of our funding from the park district, and we talk about how our goal is to see a balance of community residents with the artists. . . .

NS: People who are already interested.

LM: Yeah, it’s a little bit of a slippery . . . yeah, exactly. That’s the right way to say it – people who already have access to art culture.

NS: Is it set up to bring people back, to be recurring?

LM: We did just do that. We started out with a weekend in May – the weekend of Mother’s Day – and we just did our third annual performance there. And that’s a pretty good model, to do something on a fairly predictable schedule, year by year. So we’re going to look at repeating these two shows we’ve added to the calendar. One of them is going to be Simons Park around the start of the school year, and then there’s another one at Mozart Park around the middle of November, a little bit after Halloween. And again, trying to have that be at the same time every year, so people can look forward to it, and know that it’s going to happen.

NS: I’m not sure if I’m conflating this with something else, but do these involve, like, flag making and parades and such?

LM: Yeah! Yeah, that’s Opera-Matic. Last year, when the 606 Bloomingdale Trail opened, we were commissioned to do the whole day-long series of workshops where we set up these sewing stations along the trail, and had people who were coming to see the trail for the first time sew a flag. So they made a flag, we gave them a bamboo pole, and we asked them to come back for the opening ceremony at dusk, and we had hundreds of people waving their handmade flags. We had choreographers teaching people how to do dances with the flags, how to do these different choreographed moves. It was really amazing, and really fun. That gets to the very interdisciplinary nature of things, where it’s like, okay – it’s about class, and sewing and dancing and movement and visual art – it’s all those things put together.

NS: It’s complicated, and that’s probably what makes it interesting. Flags in particular, thinking about making your own flag is very interesting to me.

LM: Likewise.

. . .

LM: For Opera-Matic, the drive to do the project for the 606 thing came out of two very particular sets of concerns. Whenever you do public art, you need to have something that’s visual that can be seen over the tops of the heads of crowds of people.

NS: So it’s pretty practical.

LM: Yeah. So it was very much like, okay, here’s your design challenge . . . you have to do something that people can see, of course. And then, we talked a lot about movement, and how compelling things flying in the wind can be. And a big part of Opera-Matic goal is that the crowds of people are the spectacle. So now you have the potential for a hundred people, a thousand people to all be waving flags. That becomes really visually compelling. There is this ongoing question in spectacle theatre about how to maximize the amount of money you put into something. If you’re going to spend like $5,000 to make one massive object – is that going to get you the same visual impact as creating 5,000 flags? So it’s just a different way of exploring visual impact basically.

NS: And so you have more going on too, obviously?

LM: Yes, I manage the woodworking department . . . and there are probably other things I’m forgetting. But that’s most of what I’ve been up to this spring.

NS: Did you teach in the Evanston Art Center?

LM: I did not. I didn’t get to know [Matt Runfola, CIADC founder] until after he had already identified this location [for the Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center].

NS: So, coming into the new space is very similar to any open design solution – you’re looking at this blank space and deciding how to best serve as a woodworking shop?

LM: Yeah, when I entered the picture we knew there would be a woodworking department on the second floor, and the goal was that it be a flexible and meet a variety of needs, but to have enough depth to it for people to be able to go into a process and latch onto that. So, with those parameters, in a lot of ways the design was more or less spelled out, because of course there’s going to be a table saw, a bandsaw, a jointer planer, a drill press . . . I don’t really think there was any question whether those were the pieces of equipment that would be the foundation for the shop. There’s all kinds of subtleties in those things.

NS: What is up there right now that you are the most enthused about – that people might not be aware of?

LM: Well, we just set up our steam bender, which is very exciting. And so we’re bending wood, heating it up to 220 degrees and the steam softens the wood and makes it easier to form. That’s a whole exciting world.

NS: Was the equipment a donation?

LM: No, we just honestly did internet research and built it. There’s a few different ways of building a steam box and they are all basically variations on a theme.

Steam bender

Steam bender

NS: I had no idea . . . yeah, I assume way too many things are prefabricated, but you guys built this.

LM: Yeah, we put it together is really the way to say it. It’s a tube and a steamer, a source for steam. One of the things that’s really exciting about that is we’ll be doing some collaborative thinking between the technology department and the woodshop. It’s possible to envision and design forms with CAD, but then to go into the woodshop and actually try to create those forms with a process that has it’s own limitations, it’s going to be a really interesting and productive pursuit.

. . .

NS: Do you have sculpture ideas, that are unrealized, or on the backburner?

LM: I do, of course.

NS: Are some on the backburner because they aren’t possible at this moment, or just because you haven’t gotten to them, or?

LM: Yeah, both.

NS: What would be an ideal – unlimited resources – what would you make as a sculptor?

LM: The truth is I’d be here – at a place where I could work between different materials with different approaches, because I think it is clear that I’m not someone who’s going to ever be focused on just one material or one line of thinking. The thing that I’m really interested in exploring in my own artwork is this idea of interaction. I’m not a sculptor that would create a thing that people need to stand back and look at. I’m very much about being able to interact and handle a thing, and to feel the weight of it, to feel the surface of it. . . .

Interactive sculpture

Interactive sculpture

LM: Along the same lines with what I talked about with the tools and having a particular support for a tool gives you an indication about what it’s there for – there’s something that’s very interesting about how form can drive your understanding of purpose. I’m really interested in book forms – pages and unfolding and folding. I’m really interested in things fitting inside of other things because I feel like those forms give you clues about what you’re supposed to do, and in this weird way kind of drives the action of the viewer or the person interacting with it, and that gets really interesting to me.

NS: You wouldn’t be making monuments, you would be making intimate things that people can directly engage.

LM: Exactly . . . That’s the thread that goes through all these things. I even have a hard time making it out sometimes, but design and interaction – form driving purpose is thread that connects the different worlds.

For more info about Laura's various projects, please visit