Early in the morning of September 30, Kate Ruggeri received a devastating phone call from fellow artist McKeever Donovan. The complex at 2612 West Nelson Street, where the two SAIC graduates had shared a studio for more than two years, was on fire.
By the time more than 200 firefighters extinguished the five-alarm blaze, the four-story Avondale building had collapsed. Ruggeri and Donovan’s studio—along with those of Chicago artists William J. O’Brien and Erik DeBat—was destroyed.
Reached by phone, Ruggeri, a painter and sculptor, says all of the supplies she had accumulated since high school went up in smoke: “Paint, brushes, power tools, saws—as well as all the artwork that I made, pretty much.” Donovan lost art, supplies and personal possessions he had stored in the studio as he prepared to move to New York.
“Over three years of recent work and 25 years of books, tools and personal effects were wiped off the face of the earth,” DeBat says via e-mail. Through Marianne Boesky Gallery, his New York dealer, O’Brien calls the fire “a very unfortunate experience and a shock to us all.”
When news of the fire broke, the Chicago art world was still reeling from the September 14 shooting of Rainbo bartender Danny Zaretsky, a former art handler and preparator at Kavi Gupta Gallery. (Zaretsky, the victim of a mugging, is recovering but still struggling to pay his medical bills.)
“Danny’s the ‘blood’ part [of Blood & Fire],” says Western Exhibitions’ Scott Speh, who co-organized the fund-raiser for Zaretsky, DeBat, Donovan, O’Brien and Ruggeri with independent curator and ex-gallerist Britton Bertran, and Eric May, director of Roots & Culture, which hosts the dance party, art auction and bad-sweater swap Saturday 15.
Ruggeri has worked as a gallery assistant for all three of the men coordinating the event. When she thanked them for planning the benefit, they assured her, “We’re your art dads,” the artist recalls. “I’m extremely touched and really grateful,” she adds.
“You feel very lost,” Ruggeri says of the fire. “It was difficult to go buy supplies—to buy a pencil, because you don’t have a pencil anymore.” She has been “blown away” by her colleagues’ support. The Blood & Fire auction includes works gifted by numerous current and former Chicago artists, including Jessica Labatte, Geoffrey Todd Smith, Terence Hannum, Melanie Schiff and Deb Sokolow. Attendees can also donate art supplies.
As Ruggeri prepares for a January 11 exhibition at ebersmoore—her first local solo show—she’s still searching for a new workspace. The “biggest lesson” she took from the fire: “Get insurance.” She and Donovan used to have renters’ insurance on their studio but let it lapse “because we were pretty broke,” she laments. “It’s hard, when you’re making art, to think of it as a business, [but] you have to protect your work, protect your time and your energy.”
The artists are determined to move on. “I came to terms with the loss in minutes after watching ten-foot flames bursting out of my windows,” DeBat explains. “[I have] found catharsis in the tragedy that has allowed me to refine my practice and the art I make.”
Roots & Culture hosts Blood & Fire Saturday 15.