NICOLE LANE interviews CHAD KOURI

Can you tell us a little bit about your background? When did you begin your creative practice?

Art and creative thinking have always been a part of my life. From a young age, I was interested in making things and taking things apart to see how they worked. I vaguely remember a keyboard that my parents gifted me a long while ago, which I promptly took apart to see how it worked. I planned on putting it back together so I couldn’t understand why they were so upset. I was probably six or seven years old at that point, so obviously my comprehension of what was generally possible and what I was capable of was a bit blurred.

Early on, my dyslexia made most traditional academic learning difficult for me to engage with so I found myself doing a lot of drawing, making friendship bracelets and origami and taking dance classes. Later this evolved into sewing, knitting, school band and other things that I found interesting and engaging in a way that language arts and geography wasn’t. In middle school, I was mostly interested in hand writing and lettering, which evolved into an interest in typography and communication design.

I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be a designer, so I started teaching myself the software with some other friends that I worked with at a local photography studio and took my first freelance design job when I was 15 years old. A few years later I enrolled in an advertising and marketing vocational school program during my Senior year of high school. I loved this program because it meant spending 3 hours a day on academic studies that interested me.

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After that, I moved to Chicago to study communication design. I knew I didn’t have enough money to finish a four-year program so once I moved to Chicago I was going to school full-time, working part-time retail or food service jobs, and picking up freelance design work to make ends meet. After a few years of that, I got a full-time position at a small marketing firm. I was placed there through my school’s internship program. They offered me a full-time job after the internship, so I didn’t reapply to school the following semester. Shortly after taking the job I realized that being a professional designer meant being on the computer for the majority of the day (and night, for that matter) and I missed the analog processes that I used before taking the job. I found myself exploring collage as a creative outlet outside of my client work and was doing some pro bono and other small editorial illustration projects.

All of this evolved into the practice I have now—running a fine art and research studio where I create a range of different scale projects for commercial and private properties and individuals, coupled with a select handful of design projects for cultural institutions and nonprofits. One day I’m designing a book for an arts publisher or gallery, the next I’m working on a painting for a friend’s father, and the following day I’m working on eighty-four linear feet of printed mural artworks for a tech company. I really like the variation in work. It keeps my brain fresh and limber.

At the moment I’m extremely fortunate to make a living off of my creativity and problem-solving skills. That wasn’t always the case, and there’s a good chance that it won’t always be like this, so I’m taking advantage of it while I can.

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Your pieces include interests in fields like jazz, design, collage, and minimalism. Was it difficult for you to come up with your personal style in a sea full of artists?

It absolutely was. There is so much great art in the world; it’s hard not to be totally overwhelmed by the idea of making things. Early on I found myself imitating a lot while subconsciously fusing different influences together. For examples, I often relate my studio practice to that of a jazz musician. We both acquire a toolbox of skills—scales, rhythms and progressions, memorizing standards, and so on—and when it’s time to improvise, the jazz musician takes that toolbox and chops everything up to make something new out of the existing pieces.

This toolbox of skills is very similar to visual art: rhythm, composition, progression, color theory, semiotics and so on. So when it’s my time to make something new, I use variations on things I’ve seen in the past to create it. Finding these systems and congruent aspects of different fields of knowledge makes for good momentum in the studio. It’s almost comforting in a way.

Overall I have found that developing my personal style has been equal parts personal taste matched with material necessity. If I want to make a painting with flat fields of color that hide my brush strokes, I have to use a specific tool and a specific paint to achieve that look. And that tool and paint changes depending on what material you are painting on. This takes a lot of trial and error and material testing, but the outcome is something that couldn’t come for just a pure idea or just a particular application of material.

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What is a typical day like in the studio? What is your routine?

Over the past two years, I’ve worked very hard to take a slower pace in my day. The commercial design and advertising industry call for a swift pace and regular business hours. I don’t find myself most efficient in long-term engagements that require this speed and regularity. I’m much better at my job when I can wake up naturally without an alarm, pack some lunch and get into the studio whenever I’m ready. I’m generally working from about 11am-7pm on most days, but work is always different. Sometimes I have an on-site meeting with a client or patron; sometimes I’m running to a printer for samples or to the post office to ship something. I rarely get a full 8 hours of uninterrupted time in the studio. And when I do, 1/3 of that time is typically spent on emails and other communication.

As I mentioned, I do like the variety, although I have been craving some uninterrupted time in the studio. I’m looking into more residency opportunities in the coming year or two that will allow for that, which I’m really looking forward to.

What other projects are you involved in?

As you can tell, I tend to be someone who has a dozen balls in the air at one time, all of varying sizes and timelines. I’ve been better about not over-committing in the past year or so than I have been in the past, but that’s always something I’m working on. I run a shared studio space and do other collaborative projects as part of The Post Family, I have ongoing photographic and drawing based research projects, I co-founded a visual arts listing in Chicago called The Visualist which was recently handed off to another local entity here in Chicago.

I also have an automated art project called Art For All that I hope is running for years and years to come. But at the end of the day, it all feels like one thing. My art practice involves three main efforts—community building, research, and production—but these three things can take an infinite amount of forms, and can overlap to create even more variations.

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You collaborate with other artists as well. For example, your series with Pia Howell. Can you talk a little bit about collaboration and how it is essential?

Yes, collaboration has been a huge part of my practice over the years. Typically that would involve working with another artist and merging our creative visions into one super-vision. This is a good way to get uncomfortable and learn some new things. I also really nerd out on other artists’ processes and collaborating is a good way to get in another person’s head a bit. Lately, I’ve been focusing on collaborations that involve people with different skill sets than I have, like programmers, textile artists, and musicians. I’ve found this very rewarding as we bring vastly different experiences and ideas to the table, so the outcome is truly unique and unpredictable.

What are you currently working on?

I have a solo show coming up at Northeastern Illinois University that I’m currently working towards. I’m also working on some new workshop concepts for Chicago and Los Angeles venues. One of my long-term projects at the moment is a large scale Chicago jazz histories inspired artwork commissioned by the Ace Hotel for their upcoming Chicago West Loop location. I’m also making more paintings, continuing my ongoing research projects, and generally keeping busy. One thing I’d like to make more time for in the new year is reading, which is mostly focused on art theory, criticism and other non-fiction that interests me.

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How has your work changed over the years? Where do you see yourself and your work in the future?

Yes, my work has changed a lot over the years. I was using a lot of appropriated imagery magazine clippings and such) throughout to 2000s, as well as a lot of custom typography and hand lettering. About four years ago I decided to drop the hand lettering practice altogether—which was mostly commercial art focused—and concentrate more on my fine art practice.

At that time I was also thinking about how I could make larger, more refined collage works on paper. I did this utilizing minimal abstract compositions and color fields while using the same basic theories of color, semiotics, and composition that aided me in making my past collage based work.

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A lot of the pieces I’m creating now come from that practice. Although my aesthetic has changed a lot, my process is still very similar to what it was ten years ago. I still spend a lot of my time collecting research, testing materials, and building systems to create new work, while the physical act of making is much more intuitive and sporadic. It’s very common that I will have upwards of a half dozen pieces in various forms of completion to create one successful artwork. I’ve had to tighten up my making process a bit as I’ve started making paintings on canvas the past 18 months or so because the iterative process is much more conducive to works on paper.

The future is something I try not to think too hard about as I feel my best work has come out of organic growth over strict planning. As needs arise in the studio depending on personal curiosity or commission requests, I test new materials and applications that slowly evolve over time. If I were to pick something specific at the moment, I would really like to investigate more large-scale three-dimensional public artworks in the next few years. I’ve been doing some scale models in colored acrylic and cardboard, but I still have some work to do before looking into funding, production, and placement.

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Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.

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