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Art & Soul

By Julie Chernoff and Laura Hine

Photography by Nathanael Filbert


The North Shore continues to delight art lovers thanks to talented individuals who, in every sense of the word, get the job done. They are raising money, envisioning aerial scenes, finding new talent and preserving our collective cultural heritage. Here, a look at the creative minds, spaces and ideas that are shaping tomorrow’s artistic landscape.

Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi turns the circus into an art form.

Born into a circus family, multiple Jeff Award winner Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi started performing with the troupe at the tender age of 7, leaping off the teeterboard to the shoulders of her brothers. By age 27, she had performed around the world and with Ringling Bros., but was ready for a change. “I ran away from the circus with one of the clowns,” she laughs. Chicago beckoned, and she translated her circus skills to stunning physical stage choreography for Lookingglass Theatre and others. In 1995, Hernandez-DiStasi opened The Actors Gymnasium in Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Arts Center, originally as a space for stage performers to develop skills. “What we offer is truly unique,” Hernandez-DiStasi says. “The gym is its own community within the community. It’s not what we do, but whom we do it with, that’s most important to me.” That includes her continuing work as a Lookingglass artistic associate, most recently at the circus-infused Hard Times, which closes this month. Her philosophy? Preparation and training are everything. “Do everything you can so you can do what you love for as long as you can.” Even her thoughts have wings. 927 Noyes St., Evanston

Criss Henderson is the man to thank for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s amazing new space: The Yard.

For more than 30 years, Evanston’s Criss Henderson has been working behind the scenes at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. As executive director, he’s the right-hand man to Artistic Director Barbara Gaines. Together, they have built CST into a cultural powerhouse—one that has been bursting at the seams for a decade. Enter The Yard, CST’s new $35 million venue. Henderson says, “We asked ourselves, ‘What could we do to reinvent the structure and use as much of the existing architectural assets as possible?’” Their mission: to create a groundbreaking, forward-thinking space that redefines the relationship between actor and audience. Henderson and his international team answered that question with a highly flexible venue that uses nine 35,000-pound towers on air casters, which can reconfigure the space from intimate cabaret to grand thrust stage with seating for 150 to 850. Henderson relishes the opportunity to continue producing theater “that just crackles with relevance.” He adds, “The Yard meets all the sense of gravitas and cultural expectations of the theatergoer. It’s a venue in which the great theaters of the world can play.” And as the Bard himself tells us, the play’s the thing. 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago

Matching homeowners and artwork is a skill perfected over the last 37 years at Art Post Gallery.

Choosing art for a home is deeply personal, but also an aesthetic decision. “You can’t replicate the emotional connection that happens when you’re in front of a piece of art,” says Art Post Gallery owner Chris Bates. “It’s the texture and energy of a piece that you just can’t experience in a photo.” Chris and husband Scott Bates have owned the gallery since 1980, and offer framing as well as one of the largest inventories of artists in the area. “We’ve worked really hard—with art brokers and also through trade shows—to find the right mix of artists,” Chris says. She notes that the gallery only carries full-time artists, not hobbyists, and most have been recognized through curated shows and exhibits. Falling in love with a piece and knowing the provenance of the artist is a great start, but to finish strong, the artwork needs to complement a home’s decor. “We work with lots of designers and encourage in-home trials,” Chris says. Scott adds in, “It’s really Chris’ spectacular eye that makes the difference. She can envision the final product before it’s stretched and framed and can imagine how it will work in a client’s space.” 984G Willow Road, Northbrook

Evanston’s Mitchell Museum of the American Indian celebrates 40 years of collecting culture.

The Mitchell Museum, originally founded at Kendall College in 1977 by John Mayo Mitchell and Elizabeth Seabury Mitchell, just celebrated its 40th anniversary year. As one of the few museums in the country to focus exclusively on Native American tribes, it strives to “promote a deeper understanding and respect for the Native American people through traditional and contemporary material and culture,” shares Executive Director Kathleen McDonald. The collection has grown to more than 10,000 pieces with 300 or so on display at any given time. Educational programming plays a huge part in the museum’s mission, as kids from the North Shore and beyond can attest. “It covers a huge gap in most curriculums, as well as providing educational resources and understanding about Native American culture,” McDonald says. Honored in 2017 with the Illinois Association of Museums’ top exhibition award for Contemporary Native Women: Opening Doors to Change, and currently preparing for Native American Woven Art, to open Feb. 10, the Mitchell Museum is riding high in the saddle. 3001 Central St., Evanston

Susan Abrams uses groundbreaking and jaw-dropping technology to save the past for future generations.

“When I was at Auschwitz...” says Fritzie Fritzshall, a Holocaust survivor whose hologram appears before audiences at the new Take A Stand Center at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. The interactive hologram tells Fritzshall’s story and, in real time, answers questions posed by the audience. It’s a wondrous feat of technology (and the first in the world), but for museum CEO Susan Abrams, the aim wasn’t just to wow, but to educate. “Within two months of starting at the museum, I realized we needed to develop content around survivors that could preserve their stories for generations to come.” Abrams’ drive to preserve this legacy led to a $30 million capital campaign—a feat that she modestly attributes to teamwork—that helped fund 13 interactive holograms, each telling one survivor’s story, plus four galleries that celebrate human-rights activists and give visitors actionable ways to support causes they believe in. “It’s a connection between the Holocaust and the world today,” Abrams says about TASC. “It’s inspiring visitors and giving them the tools to engage civically and stand up for what’s right.” 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie