Talking with the teens behind TACO | The Mash
By Cameron Beach
Teen Artist’s Creative Space (TACO) is exactly what its name suggests as an oasis in Lincoln Park. I cracked open the door to their public space to find five shoeless artists munching on fresh cherries, painting their mural and jamming to the Beach Boys. TACO co-founder Bella Masterson looked at me and asked, “Do you want to help paint?” I’m not an artist, but I felt instantly at home in the TACO community.
Masterson and her co-founder, Bella Kiser, are both incoming seniors at Northside College Prep. They started TACO with the goal of promoting young artists Chicago-wide to share their work outside of school exhibitions. Four times per year, Masterson and Kiser (the Bellas) host a live music, poetry and art gallery where prospective artists can display their art and interested members of the community can enjoy it. Between events, they facilitate the painting of a community mural and run a website showcasing the art they receive. I sat down with the two friends to talk TACO, inspiration and the artistic community in Chicago.
Tell me a little bit about how TACO got started. What was the initial inspiration?
Bella Masterson: Well, we have very creative friends, and we’re in with an art community at school and outside of school as well. And we noticed that a lot of the art that people do is lost—schools don’t do enough to facilitate art spaces for students. Also, it’s really hard to get your work out there. So we thought about forming a space for people to be able to display their work and perform their art.
Bella Kiser: At Northside (College Prep), we do have a lot of opportunities to display our art, but then we realized that we go to this amazing school and not everybody gets that same chance. So we thought it would be appropriate to open the ground up to more people, and for them to have an opportunity to display their work as well. And then, as I can recall, we started doing events because Bella’s dad wanted to—
BM: Yeah, we have a family restaurant, Flaco’s Tacos, and my dad wanted to have a high school night because he knows a lot of our friends are in bands. Then we brought that to the visual art community as well, and we talked about displaying art on the walls. Then it expanded to slam poetry, and it turned out really well. We had a great crowd, and they were really enthusiastic, so then we decided to expand into the web, so now we have a website (tacoplanet.org).
BK: And then it kind of blossomed from there. The one event went so well, we’d thought we’d do another. And because we held the first showcase at Flaco’s Tacos, I thought it’d be funny if we had the name be an acronym for TACO. TACO stands for Teen Artist’s Creative Oasis, but that’s why it’s named TACO. And we serve tacos at every event.
I noticed that your events are always held on the equinoxes and solstices throughout the year. Why’s that?
BM: The first one was actually a coincidence. It happened to be on the winter solstice— somebody had pointed it out to us, and we were like, “WHAT?” That was awesome, because it makes sense that each season should have a “Welcome into the new season with a whole bunch of art and music!” I think that, personally, those are times of high creativity, inner awareness and external awareness, and it just makes sense to hold it then.
BK: And with the changing of seasons comes the changing of minds, because your thoughts grow and change with the seasons. Like, in the winter and Chicago …
Seasonal depression. I feel it.
I understand that the proceeds from each event go a charity of your choice. You’ve benefitted the American Foundation of Suicide Awareness and Snow City Arts in the past—what’s the reason behind picking The Canopy Project for your upcoming event?
BM: So usually we pick a charity related to something that we’ve been thinking about in our lives or one that impacts us directly. For our first event, Snow City Arts works with youth in Chicago and just seemed directly connected to TACO. But for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we’ve noticed—it’s definitely not an unnoticed phenomenon—that a lot of people in the arts community are affected by depression and suicidal tendencies, so we wanted to show everyone that this is really prevalent in our community. And this time we’re doing one for the environment, The Canopy Project, because—
BK: —it’s summer! Trees are everywhere, and planting them isn’t just good for the environment but also for areas affected by poverty. I’m very into the environment and trying to save it in general. We should just teach everybody to love the environment.
Were there any major problems in getting TACO up and running?
BK: At our first event, a lot of the artists would drop off their art, but wouldn’t tell us how they wanted it oriented. It was confusing, because some of it was pretty abstract and the signature was nowhere to be found, so we just had to guess at how to properly display it. Not knowing what the artists envisioned it to look like, it’s kind of hard for us to assume how to put it up.
BM: And, well, we didn’t have a spot. This space that we’re in right now, my dad rented it out for retail, but then the alderman said—
BK: “It has to be residential!”
BM: Exactly. But who wants to live in a box? So he told us we could use it for any of our creative endeavors, and that’s why this wall is a mural—and this wall is being painted black for our music and poetry performances.
Why do you think the community was missing something like TACO?
BM: I feel like a lot of teenage artists either do art for themselves, or they do it for school projects, and there’s not that much free reign. A lot of people we know create art that is really socially aware and pertinent to the community, so it’s a way to get those messages out there.
BK: We have a lot of friends who are like, “Look at my sketchbook, look what I added to it,” and often it’s something you’re so impressed with that you feel like everybody else should see it, too.
The socially aware art that you mentioned—what types of messages do they typically convey?
BM: We see a lot of art revolving around social media—how dangerous it is to people, and their image and self-worth.
BK: We place too much emphasis on it—it becomes our whole lives, and then we don’t actually experience anything.
BM: Exactly. Actually, one really cool collection about that is “Would You Like to Tag a Friend in this Photo?” by Elli Given. She designs all of our fliers—she’s one of our close friends.
Speaking of friends, how many people who submit art to the website are people you know personally and how many are strangers?
BM: A lot of the people who performed and submitted art in the beginning were our friends, but now we get to meet all these new people. At every event there are people I don’t know. Word of mouth really helps. And this space is open to the public to come paint or just hang out, so that’s cool—I get an opportunity to meet these artists from all over. Because the goal was never Lakeside-wide, or even Lincoln Park-wide; the goal is Chicago-wide.
Are you two artists yourselves?
BK: Yeah, actually, I consider myself an artist. I took a sculpture class this past year at school, and my mom is an artist so I’ve just grown up in a household of visual artists.
BM: I’m less into studio art, but I like art theory and art history and film.
What would you say is your personal pull to art?
BM: I grew up and I was really into reading and writing, but there’s only so much that words can express. Like in school language classes, teachers say, “This is what the author meant when they say this.” But I think that with art there’s so many different sides. Yes, it’s the artist who gives you the work, but then it’s also the viewer who’s taking it in and seeing something completely different from the person standing next to them. It’s such a unique medium that’s able to convey all sorts of different messages and emotions at once, and the people seeing it can take so many different things from what’s being given to them.
BK: For me, I grew up in a house that was filled with artists, so it’s just something that I’m used to doing. My mom would always push me to go drawing, because it’s something that she found pleasure in, and she thought maybe that her kids would also find that pleasure. And I did. I also feel that, with my art, it’s something that I made with my hands—like, “I have solely created this piece of work, this is mine.” And it’s so accessible. I could be inventing the new, latest technology, but because I can’t get my hands on the materials and tools, I wouldn’t be able to do that. But with art, you can make anything that you want.
BM: And it’s so timeless. Especially with technology, new things come around every month, and suddenly what you have is obsolete. But, for instance, the Art Institute—going back and seeing ‘20s paintings—it’s just incredible to see how timeless some art is.
Do you guys ever go to the Art Institute for inspiration in your own lives and projects?
BK: Yeah, actually, for my first semester independent art project, I was inspired by the (Rene) Magritte exhibit—
No way, Magritte’s my favorite artist! I loved that exhibit.
BK: Me too, it was so cool. So he had something that really resonated with me, which was that he would make light of how language is a human invention and each word doesn’t really mean anything because we made it up. And I thought that it would be interesting to reverse that idea and instead make something based solely on the human invention of the spoken word. I’m very into costume design, so I took a baby-doll dress and spliced it—well, I derived my medium exactly from the word “baby-doll,” so I made a dress out of actual baby dolls.
BM: I think looking at high schooler’s art compared to exhibitions at the Art Institute or Museum of Contemporary Art, it’s really amazing to see how much a high schooler can do when given the right materials and flexibility with their own creativity. I was thinking about Keith Haring the other day, and how his art is so one dimensional in terms of color, and then seeing artists that I know personally working with the same color schemes and shapes—it’s really cool to see how much people can do.
TACO, the website, the events … You’re doing all of this in the name of sharing art with the community. Why is art so important?
BK: I think without creative expression we would just all die of boredom.
BM: Agreed. And I think expression is so important—just the idea of it in general, no matter what medium. Not everyone wants to display their art for everyone to see, so we allow anonymity on our site, which is cool because I think it’s not about “Who did this?” necessarily, it’s more about that person being able to display their art and being able to say, “I made this, and I want you to see it.”
BK: I think another message we’re trying to send is that it’s okay to express yourself in different ways, and that because everybody is different, everybody will find that creative outlet in a different medium. For a lot of people, it’s visual art, or slam poetry, or performance and music—it doesn’t matter where or when it is, but everybody needs to find that sense of flow in order to find an inner happiness.
TACO hosted its third seasonal event last Friday, July 10. All proceeds from the event were donated to The Canopy Project.