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James Kao Says Artists Drive the Conversation

Written by on October 27, 2022

Ten years ago, art teacher James Kao and two of his students left the Art Institute with an opportunity to start a space to help local artists. Now, he co-programs 4th Ward Project Space.

Painter James Kao’s work is centered primarily on natural imagery, specifically trees, water and ruins. He explained ecosystems and the way they work together are inspiring to him. It comes as no surprise Kao would go on to take interest in a different ecosystem: the artist community.

Alongside his former students Mika Horibuchi and Valentina Zamfirescu, and with the help of local artist SaraNoa Mark, Kao serves as co-director and co-programmer of 4th Ward Project Space, an artist-run exhibition space located in Hyde Park. 

Photo by Makenzie Creden / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media

4th Ward Project Space is an inclusivity-driven space which honors the direction of individual artists, operating without regard to commercial interest with the goal of maintaining artistic freedom. 

The space features both local and international artists and exhibits of practically all mediums, from painting to stone carving. Kao noted one of the things he and his colleagues love about Chicago is its variety of artists.

“There’s just such… a huge number of artists with a wide range of talents and interests in the city,” he explained. “It’s the kind of place where there are a lot of artists, and a lot of young artists, that maybe we could support just by having another space.”

When Kao isn’t working at 4th Ward Project Space, he also teaches painting and drawing classes, another way he aims to build up the artistic community.

For this segment of “This is What Chicago Sounds Like,” James Kao discusses the creation and legacy of 4th Ward Project Space and Chicago’s vibrant art scene.

What is 4th Ward Project Space?

4th Ward Project Space is an artist-run exhibition space. It’s run by four artists, Mika Horibuchi, myself, Valentina Zamfirescu and SaraNoa Mark, together invite artists that we’re all very keen on to exhibit their work in the space. It’s a project that we run in Hyde Park, which is a neighborhood that I’ve always been very interested in. I’ve been in the area for a while now. 

We opened the space, I think almost 10 years ago, maybe nine or 10 years ago. One of the missions is for us to support artists. I think also the neighborhood, Hyde Park. I’ve always loved Hyde Park. And I think that’s maybe my favorite place in the city. 

Are you from Chicago?

I grew up in Houston, I came to Chicago after high school. I went to college in Chicago. Then I moved to Los Angeles for four years after college. I was living in LA, in Venice Beach, and I started taking classes in the evenings with this Thai artist named Vibul Wonprasat. And eventually he was like, “Oh, you should go to art school.” That’s… a very clear memory… someone telling me, “You should go to art school.” So I did! That’s how I ended up back in Chicago. And I think that’s… one of the things that really kind of put me on the track. I’m an artist, I make paintings and drawings. 

James Kao, Drift, 2022.

What do you focus on in your work?

I’m interested in trees, and how much they’re like people and how much we’re like trees. I’m interested in ecosystems, water and ruins, and kind of finding things in the world. The most remarkable things, you might see in a forest, from the way an animal approaches you or to how a sapling grows out of a tree stump. 

What is it like for visual artists in Chicago? How do we differ from other cities?

There’s just such… a huge number of artists with a wide range of talents and interests in the city. And they all are able to live in a city which is very affordable, but also have the opportunity to do something — because it doesn’t take a whole lot of resources to build a project in the city. If you really want to do something here, I think you can still do that.

One of the things we’ve liked about Chicago is it’s the kind of place where there are a lot of artists, and a lot of young artists, that maybe we could support just by having another space. There’s lots of opportunities here for artists. There’s a real commercial art world here that thrives, but it doesn’t thrive to the point where it’s driving all the conversations in Chicago. And so there’s room for folks to make a living off of the art world here, but there’s also a lot, I think, of room for artists to drive that conversation. Art is what we really want to show… not quite sure that we know what that is, exactly. And that’s what makes it interesting to work with three other artists, is that we really have to come to an agreement on that this is what we want to do. 

What kind of work do you feature at 4th Ward Project Space?

We’ve shown paintings, we’ve… presented performances, and we’ve shown video works. We’ve also shown stone carving. One of our primary goals is to help artists. We kind of always believed that having… a singular voice of an artist might really help them more project what they want to share with the world than being in a show with three or four or 15 other artists. I would say almost all the shows or exhibitions have been one-person exhibitions.

We’ve been fortunate to find, I think, lots of different artists that make really interesting work, from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds. We’re interested in often work that we can look at, and I think work that maybe lingers and waits for us to come back. We’re interested in work that talks about the world. 

A previous 4th Ward Project Space exhibition. The space transforms to the artist’s vision.

Do you show only Chicago artists?

We’ve presented work mostly of Chicago artists, I want to say maybe 85% of the works we’ve shown are from Chicago artists. 

How did the four of y’all come to work together?

I had met Valentina and Mika, they were students of mine at the Art Institute of Chicago. They were graduating, and I was actually leaving the school. And somehow, this opportunity arrived to open up a space. And that’s kind of how it happened. SaraNoa came along a little bit later, not too much later, after we began the project. And… we found that we just needed more help. 

What’s it like to coordinate this space with all four of you?

The collaboration part has been some of the most exciting and most interesting and the most joyful part of the process. All the privileges that we have just from good friendships. We share meals, we keep up with each other. And, in a way, we take care of each other. It’s also sometimes difficult, because there are four ideas and brains and mindsets in the room. We’re not all the same, and we do have disagreements. But I think we know that those disagreements are part of the game, and that’s kind of made the project even, I think, more sustainable for us. 

We are programmers… but we don’t have a very specific programming agenda there, other than we want the space to be successful. We want it to be part of the community. We want to support artists, so sometimes there are moments where we think bringing in an artist from out of town will be very good for the community. And then there are times, obviously, that there’s so many artists in the city that we just want to support.

What do you do when you’re not programming and running 4th Ward Project Space?

I teach. I give painting and drawing classes. I’ve been a teacher for at least a few years after graduate school. And it’s been a really rewarding thing to work with students. But it’s also great to just watch a student to kind of learn how to draw. And when they start to think like an artist, or even start to move and be like an artist. That’s like a really, really wonderful moment. There are lots of teachers and mentors and friends that all arrived into my life that really just made it all possible.

Keep up with James Kao and 4th Ward Project Space on their websites!

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Photography and written introduction by Makenzie Creden

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

 Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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