The Union, Forever

Back in the courtship days, Mr. Starshaped and I spent hours finding and photographing Chicago's historical details, especially those pertaining to the city's long and storied relationship with trade unions. As a member of IATSE Stagehands Local 2, Mr. S's life's work is tied into this history and its ever-changing social and political influence on the working classes.

 Photographs from past visits to important labor history sites.

Photographs from past visits to important labor history sites.

One of the structures that has always resonated is the Union Stock Yard gate, the sole standing reminder of what was once referenced in Sandburg's perfect poem Chicago: Hog Butcher to the World. Sitting serenely in what is currently a corporate industrial area, its unassuming presence almost belittles what happened behind it for a century. The area surrounding what was the Stock Yard, known as the Back of the Yards neighborhood, could be viewed as a microcosm for any large urban environment that promised ample work for a massive influx of immigrant labor. It took 70 years to organize such a disparate workforce and demand decent living and working conditions. The seeds of social change began here, as in so many low wage areas of the city at the turn of the century, when the actions of the few towards reform and education helped the many achieve a greater quality of life.

I recently stopped to visit again, this time on my own, to collect more images with the objective of creating a new print. While photographing, I reminisced about the first time I met Mr. S's Grand Pap, a hard-working, first-generation American who spent his life laboring in a meat packing plant. This man won me over when I was pregnant by ordering two chicken breasts for me at lunch because I was 'eating for two.' His straight shooting humor and affection for family, not to mention his passion for meat and the right way to slice salami, is much missed.

Years prior to dating, Mr. S came across a stash of wonderfully vivid 1950s-era posters for the International Livestock Expositions that occurred on the grounds of the Stock Yard. Three of these, in beautiful frames to match the moldings of our 1920 Chicago-style bungalow (again, a nod to our love of the city), now hang in our living room. Another familial connection exists here as my Scottish-born Great Great Grandfather exhibited sheep at these very events.

 Framed and photographed by Artists Frame Service, Chicago.

Framed and photographed by Artists Frame Service, Chicago.

I thought I could approach this differently than most of the structural pieces I've printed if I used rules (lines) as the main, or key color and then added subtle textures over them. I didn't sketch much, didn't work out the proportions. I found curved furniture that felt like a good start and quickly built out from there.

 The first good carbon paper proof.

The first good carbon paper proof.

What was I thinking? This was incredibly challenging. Getting all of the lines to stay in place, especially the curved ones, not to mention keeping the straight ones, well, straight... I wasn't sure this would work at all. I carved a tiny Sherman, the bull whose head graces the top of the gate.

 Printed proof with slightly altered ornaments and rule.

Printed proof with slightly altered ornaments and rule.

How would it look with added textures? What would they be? Color? No idea. This print was coming together on its own, as I set it. This is partly because I chose to wing it and wanted to finish in time to celebrate Chicago's 179th birthday on March 4th. Could I slow it down and make multiple proofs? Sit on it for a week? Revisit the site? Make proportional measurements? Sure. But this isn't what I'd call the Chicago Way. The thing I love the most about working in this community of printmakers is the sheer Roll Up Your Sleeves, Do It NOW, Go Big or Go Home approach to every project, and the support one gets from peers when this approach is taken, even if it fails in the most epic manner. No one has ever said it better than Steve Albini, and while he references the music scene, it's true for printmaking in Chicago:

In Chicago people display their affection for each other by the amount of abuse and ball-breaking that they do among their closest friends. There’s a sort of enforced humility here, which means that nobody ever really gets bigger than their britches and if they do everybody else will let them know about it. In Chicago you end up with a bunch of people who are working on something trying to make a difference and do something solid, but the focus is never on the personalities. It’s true in the arts community, the theater community, in the music community, and among writers in Chicago.

This is also profoundly true of the Stagehands in Local 2; more on that later. Back to the print. Would it all fall apart? Maybe. But I kept on, knowing that pushing through and getting type on press is what mattered for this project and there's merit in whatever happens with the pressure of a deadline.

Adding a layer to make the structure pop on the paper was next. This is a pretty clean version of what the workspace looks like while piecing together something new.

The second color was simple; one linoleum cut to create the roof as well as the title at the bottom of the print. The third was the biggest struggle as it would be the texture of the building and should separate the overall structure from the paper color (which matches the actual limestone of the gate.)

Here is the final print; overall I am pleased given how quickly it came together. When I get closer I see nothing but flaws. Combining old and new wood and metal type alongside brass rules and linoleum is a recipe for uneven print quality. And while I keep looking at this and comparing it to the photographs I realize these flaws are more true to the spirit of the gate than if it were perfect. The stone work is worn, and patches through the years hold it together, iron gates and lights are missing, and much like my ornament collection, it has seen better days. Perhaps the imperfections are acceptable when viewed as metaphor for the complicated and messy history of what transpired on this ground.


While countless similar likes and dislikes are the foundation of my relationship with Mr. S, Chicago forms the very roots that have grounded us; nothing pleases me more than raising a child in a city that has something incredible to offer at every turn. Its ingrained understanding and acceptance of unions (have you seen our St. Patrick's Day parade?) and their place in both supporting the rights of individual and collective workers while paving the way for better conditions is very much alive.
No one understands, no, feels, this better than myself. In our hour of great need, we witnessed the Local 2 Stagehands rally to establish a fund for our family to cover us while Mr. S can't work. They have delivered food, comfort, theater gossip and the moral support that lasts longer than hydrocodone. The musicians of Local 10-208 staged a benefit performance in January to raise funds for us as well in the way they know best: good beer and incredibly tight music. These are strong unions doing what unions are supposed to do. They are taking care of their hard working members when needed in a show of solidarity.

I built this form in the shape of the IATSE bug and printed it on 5x7" cards to share with as many of the stagehands as I am able to track down. It is a small gesture towards recognizing the work of many in support of the few. Our tiny family is part of something much larger, namely an idea of ourselves as tied to the Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get It Done Chicago Way that transcends the last century and more. I am proud and humbled to be a part of yet another legacy in the city that staked a claim on my heart and I strive every day to earn my place in it; Chicago doesn't accept any less than that.


The Union Stock Yard print is available for purchase here.
Props to Billy Bragg for the title of this post, and for keeping the faith.