Chicago transplant raising funds for coworking art studio in North Lawndale

Jess Willis recently raised over $6000 to help open a coworking art studio at 1954 S. Troy Street in North Lawndale. All photos submitted by Jess Willis

Jess Willis recently raised over $6000 to help open a coworking art studio at 1954 S. Troy Street in North Lawndale. All photos submitted by Jess Willis

alt text By Trevor Squire, Criminal Justice Reform Editor, The Real Chi

After years of creative advertising work, Jessica Willis started her own blog “Swaggerless” and began highlighting artists’ work from around the world. She soon felt unfulfilled, not seeing tangible results from her work, and decided to organize a pop-up art show in Los Angeles that quickly outgrew her expectations.

“It started was the pitch was over a dozen underground and emerging artists from around the world share their work,” Willis said. “Turns out, there were more because people started telling their friends and at some point, I was like ‘if you're an artist, you can just come in, put your work up.’”

“They were artists from all different backgrounds and from all different levels of experience… helping each other out,” she added.

Willis moved from Los Angeles to Chicago last June, hoping to materialize her goal of opening a coworking art space that’s accessible for all levels of artistry. She reached her fundraising goal of $6,000 last Wednesday to open a space in North Lawndale, at the intersection of South Troy Street and West 21st Street, and is still raising funds to repair the warehouse’s utilities and begin assembling more art supplies.


Willis took some time out of her schedule to talk to The Real Chi about her vision for the studio and her immersion into the Chicago art scene. To learn more about the studio or to donate, click here.

The studio space spans over 2,500 feet.

The studio space spans over 2,500 feet.


TS: How did the idea for a studio come about?

Willis: I had this idea for this space back in 2012-2013 when I was like ‘I want to do printmaking, screen printing and stuff like that, but I can't afford a press. And even if I could afford a press, where am I going to put this stuff?’ I don't understand why we can't have a space that is like, almost works like a gym, coworking space or almost like the studios that we had in college, then they're all open and you share everything. And that's just how it works.

TS: What is your impression of Chicago’s art scene?

Willis: I feel like Chicago is extremely underrated. I knew from reading and reporting that Chicago is one of the largest markets and has one of the largest creative communities, but it’s not until you actually get here and see the stuff going on — and I haven’t. I’ve only seen a portion and that’s exciting to me.

I live in Hyde Park and notice how polarized and segregated the city is — the art scene on the North Side is not what’s happening on the South Side — and the West Side has its own vibe.

TS: What’s the West Side’s “vibe?”

Willis: There's a ton of opportunity here. I just feel like people just need to be empowered and to know that we can make whatever we want. I always let people know that I'm new to Chicago. I don't know all the needs and the struggles with people in Chicago. I'm here to help and listen.

I love living in Hyde Park because you feel this creative community there, a lot of diverse business owners and the historical tours around Bronzeville. North Lawndale has that same history. Hyde Park is becoming too expensive, I’m going to have to move — like people are getting priced out.

I don’t want that to happen in North Lawndale and that’s why it’s important to have community ownership of their space.

TS: With the space opening up, are you hoping to provide that opportunity and bridge for more people to join and learn about Chicago’s art scene?

Willis: I hope that it opens up an opportunity for people that live within this specific community to be able to kind of have more access to the actual creating process. I'm hoping to bring a lot of people from different walks of life, and just anyone who needs a space to work.

Several rooms are still in need or renovations.

Several rooms are still in need or renovations.


Students don't have art classes anymore and so people think of art as ineffective or something that's not needed. But now go back to advertising and branding, and these creative departments, who's gonna fill the role of the creative director, who's going to fill the role of the art director, the illustrator, the graphic designer, the copywriter, you know, all these positions.

My hope is to open it up so that people can also kind of learn of opportunities and these develop these skills and build their books, or build their portfolios, or whatever they want to do. You don't have to go to college. I also want to do with this space is to have opportunities for kind of workshops, panels, master classes, so people have opportunity to kind of hear these stories, talk to talk to these people and see the power that we have — that we can bring money into communities from outside sources, because, you know, we are the creators, like we need to start thinking of ourselves as creators.

Art can be a hobby, or creativity can be your hobby, but it can be your career too.

TS: And so establishing a portfolio or having a space to work — that's the number one thing to get you going in that direction.

Willis: Yeah if you don’t have the work you don’t have anything… People need to see your work and if you don’t have the opportunity to build that body of work it’s going to be hard to get people to hire you.

TS: What kind of space improvements would you like to see with additional Kickstarter funds?

Willis: Because it’s a warehouse, Chicago requires you to use copper pipes and those materials are expensive. The walls need to be put in, also another door. We have to get all the fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and all those small things that add up.

TS: As you’re still building Swaggerless Studios, what is your goal for the space five years from now?

Willis: I just want a space where people have that access to what they need to create, come together and collaborate. And there's a lot of other studios around the city that are great, amazing spaces. But the majority of them are private or you have your private studio within kind of a larger space. I feel like that's limiting for a lot of people. And so, you know, I would love it to be like a communal hub.

To learn more about the studio or to donate, click here.