Interview by Lauren Ash. Photography by Shelby Stone.
How many of us know friends that are truly like family? That offer up their homes to us, no questions asked? That give what they can: food, hugs, and conversation. That provide space, resources, and room for those who can benefit from it it. I apparently know a handful, at least: I have three keys on my keyring that don't "belong" to me.
One of these keys was given to me by Irina Zadov of the Hyde Park Dacha, a live/work/create space which cultivates creative communities through dialogue, cultural production, and healing. The artist collective involved with the Dacha includes women, migrants, people of color, and LGBTQ folks committed to social transformation. Irina built upon prior conceptions of dachas in Eastern Europe and put it into radical practice in Hyde Park. Dozens, if not hundreds, of people have lived, worked, or created in this modern-day Dacha including original Dacha collective member and Chicago-based artist Dominique Boyd, and current Dacha artist-in-residence and filmmaker Jason Tompkins. It is my hope that through this interview more of us will begin to navigate the world asking (and responding) to the questions Irina asks toward the end of our conversation: How do we truly create the kinds of world that we want to be a part of? How do we really build each other and thrive together? We can begin with our homes. I'm happy to follow-up on last month's Daymaker's feature with a feature on the amazing energy of the Hyde Park Dacha.
Lauren Ash: Irina, tell us about the origins of the Dacha.
IZ: So, a dacha is a Russian word. A dacha is a concept practiced around Eastern Europe. Basically, growing up in the Soviet Union, we were essentially in public housing. We were living in this giant cement box, and people were living in very small quarters. There was a culture of surveillance. Folks were really encouraged to spy on their neighbors and rat them out. People would be taken in the middle of the night and you’d never hear from them. This happened to my family members. So, it was definitely a very intense city life. But in the countryside, there would be these government-allotted plots of land where people could build a little cottage. Granted, those are distributed by where you work, so we were in this refrigerator factory area, and I don’t want to make it sound completely romantic – it was still the Soviet Union – but there was something about it as a child I really appreciated, which was that sense of intentional community. I spent all my summers there as a child and we grew our own food and we would spend all of our days in the forest and in the lake. It was this really beautiful escape. And it’s something still very much practiced in that part of the world. It’s interesting because I think it’s also like a form of or a way to keep people pacified. People escape from certain things in the cities, too. There’s the good and bad of it too. Where it’s like “as long as we have our dachas” it doesn’t matter if the government can’t control the production of goods or the growth of food – we can have our own little canned pickles. Anyway, that’s where the concept of the dacha comes.
Moving to Hyde Park, which is this interesting neighborhood. It’s like this little island on the South Side and it has this interesting history with the university and the police force; and also the sense of surveillance. I’m thinking about what it means to live intentionally, and what is family, what is community, and how we build and cultivate that. So, I’ve really been fortunate to share this space with a lot of really beautiful people. Most folks that have lived here have done organizing and healing and art practices are people of color, migrants, queer folks, and I think that’s pretty important, given that not everyone has access to all of this. I happen to be in a position of privilege and have that opportunity to share, so I like to do that as much as possible.
LA: Dominique, when I asked Irina about this interview and said, “Who are some people that you think of that have been absolutely instrumental, ingrained in the life here?” and she was like, “Dominique was here painting the walls, she was here practicing yoga!” So share more of your history with this space, and what it’s given you and what you’ve given it.
DB: Well, I met Irina prior to the Dacha even existing. We always had just a natural connection about our visions for ourselves and for our communities and our art. I lived in Hyde Park a little before her and when she said she was moving to the neighborhood, I was just thrilled because I was like “Yes! Finally, I’m going to have someone to borrow ketchup from! I just want a neighbor!”
Someone you can really count on – your Roger, your broman. One of those! I just needed that authentic kind of something. So I was just thrilled. And she invited me over and we sat in little room back there and we were just sitting on the floor and I was just like, “oh!” It was so yummy in here, and just like mature, and the wood just felt good when you took your shoes off. And it just felt like home, you know? I couldn’t understand why my body was having that kind of reaction to it. Remember, Irina? I was just sitting in the windowsill and I was like “Oh my god, the sun’s coming in.” I was just like, “This place is so rich!” I think I went into the bathroom and I saw the tile and I had another reaction. And I was like, you know, I think this is the tile that my parents had at their place, which was just down the block. Just so much of my move to Hyde Park and the South Side and Woodlawn area was very intentional. I was born on 52nd and Dorchester and I left there when I was about five years old and we moved to the suburbs, so for so long I felt so disconnected from the rest of my family, from Black people, from this neighborhood, from Chicago. So when I moved back here, essentially I wanted to get to know those roots again. Being inside of this apartment, I couldn’t go back to the apartment where I was born, but being in here was like a second chance. This feels like the kind of hallway that we had. So many of the homes in Hyde Park are built in a similar way, so the reactions that I was having in my body, those were real experiences that were coming back to the life. The patterns in the bathroom, the patterns on the wall – all of that has not changed. It’s just so beautiful to have something still existing that existed 30 years ago. It’s not the case with the neighborhood, it’s not the case with any of the places where my parents – they moved around, people moved around, so just to have that was real. It was real. I was down for whatever Irina was down for – it was her place!
She was very open – more than ketchup!
More than the little things you borrow from the neighbors. She had a grand vision of being this artistic home for so many people. And I was like “that’s cool” you know? She gave us keys, and the generosity was so real. And, I never imagined it would really be all of these things. She wanted have meetings and make it really curated, and I was [at first] like “let’s just have a house party?” I’m just so glad that you had that formality with it, Irina, because it made it a real, real thing. So many people have had the opportunity to have access to it in so many ways.
I never thought it would be my home. I went through hard times this summer and it was my home. It was like, no questions about it. It wasn’t even me asking, it was her offering. And [when I stayed here] I was waiting for the day for her to just get crazy about one thing. Even the coolest roommate is gonna get crazy at some point! [But] she just never got crazy. And I was like, this is really who this woman is. This home she’s building – this is truly who Irina is, straight up. It’s really admirable and beautiful.
LA: So, Jason, you’re the artist in residence...
[LAUGHTER and fingersnaps]
LA: And Dominique spoke about this being a very artistic space, and that’s been clear for the moment I walked in with visual art everywhere. So, you as an artist, can you speak to your experience living here, creating here and mingling with other artists in this space?
JT: So, the origin story of how I ended up in the Dacha is a little bit different. I’ve been in Chicago since the summer of ‘08 and the vast majority of that time I spent living in Uptown. Very fond of that neighborhood. I had to move from the place I was living to a cheaper place in August. That initially sounded like an ideal situation, but long story short, it was kind of a sublet-down. [Laughter] I was in a situation where I needed to find a new place to live really, really quickly so through fellow Dacha Collective member Aymar Jean Christian, very good mutual friend, he mentioned the Dacha.
I’d been here before for just one of the Dacha events. But we didn’t know each other. Aymar asked, “Would you be open to moving to High Park?” and I was like, “That’s so far away…”
I was kind of hoping some other things would work out – they didn’t – and it was literally three, four days’ notice, if I recall correctly at best, and I was like “yeah, I do need a place to live or I’ll be out in the street.” I believe Irina was out of town [but] she responded “yeah, of course.” It was a Sunday in early October. Initially, I was like “great, I’m alive and I’m living in a place.” But as far as really as being in a space that’s so creative and that is really committed to intentionality around community, around what does it mean to organize and build art that successful and relevant to our day to day lives. It’s been incredible living here because I’ve had to think about my own latent arts practice as a wanna be, gonna be filmmaker, film producer. It’s really great to be in this space because Irina really did move me into actually creating a piece for the Dacha event back in October.
My piece was about my grandmother who actually passed away early October. It was great to me really process that experience through creative work and also try to move back into the habit of actually producing something. Not that everything has to be about production, but it really was like, “okay, I really need to get moving on things.” Since I’ve been living here, just all the events that have come through here, through relationships it’s just been great to be back in a creative community and connecting with creative folks, arts folks who are thinking about the largest context and what it means for us to be moving to really transforming the world into something that really want it to be. How can we use our creativity as tools to change that reality as opposed to a space in which we escape? That’s the kind of filmmaker I want to be, that’s the kind of producer I wanna be. It’s been absolutely amazing, living here.
LA: All of you have rich answers, which makes me so happy. [Laughter] So physical nature of this space, in terms of how you arrange things, and the art. Let’s just start with the amazing tapestry you created and have in your dining room, Irina.
IZ: So that is a piece that was created through a project called “Open Faced.” Before I moved to Chicago, I partnered with Abraham Efton, a dear friend. We took this journey that basically retraced the path of two Soviet journalists who came the US in the 1930s. So they came to New York from Moscow and they drove cross-country to California. It was after the Great Depression and it the Model T Ford and highways were all new, and these were people coming from the Soviet Union in the 1930s. They had no concept of capitalism – just the idea of marketing, and movie theaters, and highways. But also straight up racism, and Native American reservations and going to the South. It was very, very crazy, what they saw. And they published a book of essays and photographs and that became the Bible in the Soviet Union in terms of visions for America. The book is called Одноэтажная Америка, which means “One Story: America” and that really debunked the idea that Soviet people had about the US, in terms of being this space of these skyscrapers and this wealth. Granted, it was highly edited, in terms of being like anti-capitalistic so it’s hard to know what they were really feeling and thinking but they spent years here. And it was a really, really kind of epic piece of work. It was in my parents’ home; every Soviet person you talked to they knew about that book.
LA: I’m curious – was it translated right away?
IZ: Well, what happened is Abe and I had been living in San Francisco and we’d just stumbled across this book. And it had been reprinted –
DB: Stumbled? I: Yeah! I didn’t grow up reading this text?
L: So it was there, but you didn’t really interact with it?
IZ: Mmhmm, my parents had hundreds of books, I did not read them all – I was seven years old!
But this one, I called my parents and they were like, “we know it.” They had just reprinted it because the University of Michigan had an exhibition of the photographs, and they had reprinted this book and they called it “Ilf and Petrof’s: American Road trip.” And I, being from the Soviet Union and wanting to go back for my whole entire life, we felt like, “we need to retrace this journey.” So, we quit our jobs, we actually had a home theatre festival performance in our Berkeley home on May 5th, and on May 6th we drove from California to New York and we spent a month just having meals with people. We were in caves, in rooftops and parking lots and meadows and just all of these random places with mostly just strangers and we just collected stories and recipes and what is this life in America.
So that’s what the tapestry is – it’s essentially a combination of snippets of recipes that people shared with us. Honestly, I don’t read it that often but when I do, it’s really moving, cause it’s like family, friends, and strangers all over the US and throughout eastern Europe. And It’s in English, Russian, and Belarusian.
And I will say for context, not many people know or have heard of Belarus. It’s currently Europe’s only dictatorship, so the idea of doing these meals [when we went to contemporary Belarus] were actually really different and really challenging. And the dacha was the only space to really have those conversations, because in the cities it’s hard to know what’s really is happening but the KGB is still called the KGB. They have not rebranded. It’s like FBI but Soviet style. Putin was in the KGB. My Mom, when we left, told me not to talk to anybody, not to open your mouth in public, not to make eye contact with anybody, your phone will be bugged, any email that you send is gonna be read. You just never know how paranoid you can be with stuff like that – and of course, the US government does all of this too, but I think there’s something particular about Soviet/post-Soviet society. There’s such a strong strong self-policing, and even though it’s pretty homogenous in cultural and ethnic background, there’s still – just the way that people are on the street. There’s a deep-found sense of you don’t stand out, you don’t speak up, because there will be serious consequences.
So doing that kind of work there, I really serious. Even though it doesn’t feel at all subservient – we’re just sitting around a table talking – but you just never know what can happen. While we were there, there was an international incident where this advertising from Switzerland wanted to do a pro-democracy action and they launched these teddy bears from a plane over Belarus and each teddy bear had a sign “We heart Belarus, “Pro-Democracy,” “Free Speech.” It was actually very cute and saw some of pics of it on my wall on Facebook. Next thing I know the government is calling it an act of terrorism, the Ambassador to Switzerland is fired and deported out of the country, an 18 year old who posted a picture of the teddy bear on his blog is sentenced to 7 or 8 years in prison. Things escalate very quickly. And at this point, Abe and I are in our tiny little Soviet apartment afraid to post anything on Facebook. We’re afraid our phone is being tapped, we don’t know if we’re gonna be able to leave the country. And again, all of this happens here in different and similar ways, but how are we controlled? How much freedom do we have? So that’s the tapestry.
LA: I think it’s important to hone in on the tapestry because I think it’s a central part of the house. It’s something everyone notices. The other art in the room, isn't most of it from local artists?
IZ: Yeah, Adriana Rodriguez was actually one of our first artists-in-residence, and he came out here from Oakland. She’s very fierce, sex positive. She does a lot of work around migration, and environment, and environment, labor, and gender. And then Krista Franklin, who is a local printmaker-poet. Throughout the house, it’s all pretty much local art. Family, friends, people that we love, that have left things.
LA: And I just realized all of us have contributed art in one way or another to the Dacha. We all contributed in the last salon.
IZ: Well what’s really ironic about that salon is that the theme was release, like releasing the space. I feel like since then it’s become so much more active, because of the Black Lives Matter movement [and others]. It’s amazing. I can be very structured and in the beginning, we would have meetings and I would send out notes and bullet points and reminders. It was very serious. Over time, I’ve really let go and people are just making it their own. That’s the beautiful thing.
LA: Jason, what’s your favorite thing about this house, aesthetically?
JT: Well, what immediately comes to mind is the living room. It’s a well put together space that is very simple, which I think is really awesome. But it can be a screening space, a yoga studio, so many different thing. It’s very inviting and flexible. I spend a lot of my time researching films, hooked up to the projector. It’s awesome to have a nice, big view there. There’s so many books and things to look at, it’s really lovely.
IZ: I’ll just add, because Jason’s really modest, that my film education has really quadrupled in that last three months. Every night is like a little film festival. It’s a critical race analysis of Empire or watching a series of queer shorts from Russia and Cuba. It’s also great because you have so many amazing friends who are media producers and filmmakers and we’re always having these amazing conversations and watching these amazing films. Jason is this really fabulous chef—
JT: It’s because of this amazing space that I feel compelled to get back into cooking. Then if not for sustainability reasons. It’s like “I’m broke and I live downtown” and I really shouldn’t be spending all of my money on food. I enjoy it and it’s relaxing and I cooked a meal and its good and people like it!
LA: What about you, Dom?
DB: I have a lot of spots, but I think I gravitate to where we are all sitting out here. Me always talking about planting something, maybe in the summer. When we’d put a little blanket in the back, and it was a nice night or morning to just kind of chill. I like the living room too. I like the couch. I like to put on the music every now and then and just read something. Irina and I read a few books on International Women’s Day last year, and we were just reading for that afternoon.
LA: Well, is there anything else you’d like to share? The theme of the month is transition.
IZ: I will say this, because Jason and Dominique are some of my closest friends ever, and have really been with me through a lot of transitions that have transpired at the Dacha. We’ve experienced transitions at the Dacha in so many different ways and I just wanna say how grateful I am to both of you. Really, out of anyone in Chicago, you two have been here for me. I’ve been thinking about violence and all the way its manifests, and thinking about how do we respond to harm without creating more harm. I think that’s like a really powerful question that I think about a lot. Obviously there’s so much work we’ve done around police brutality and incarceration, but there’s also so many things in our daily lives. How do we really live with a harm reduction framework, right? How do we truly create the kind of world that we want to be a part of? How do we really build each other and thrive together? Things are always gonna be problematic. In terms of love and community and family, I feel so supported here.
When I was little and I first learned the word “community,” it was like, what community? It was family and it was work. I really didn’t have [community], yet I always imagined people coming and going, and eating and doing basic daily things in life [together], and sharing friendship. Really being there for each other, holding each other down. I really feel like that’s the spirit and whether or not it’s this particular space, I hope we can [continue to] cultivate that with each other.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Shelby Stone is a photographer, interdisciplinary artist and thinker. Having been a resident of the west coast for over two decades, and after completing her B.A. in Studio Art with an accompanying minor in Cultural Anthropology from San Francisco State University, she relocated to Chicago in 2013. She moved to fulfill a blossoming desire for travel and deeper exploration of culture, space and self. Having recognized a spiritual and purpose-based rootedness in Chicago, in conjunction with building her fine-art practice, she hopes to engage her passion for process, film-photography and the human condition. She focuses her endeavors towards building spaces that nurture the intersections of creativity, identity, self-expression, art making and education. Shelby works to further aid in developing the narratives and social values of individuals and communities in Chicago, San Francisco/Bay Area, and beyond. She currently resides in Hyde Park.