Photo by Mitch Cerrone
Photo Caption -
Gregor Mortis, founder of Charybdis Multi-Arts Complex, 4423 N. Milwaukee Ave., hosts a variety of artists anyone from writers to painters to actors to musicians.

Lerner Times - March 29, 2001
Front Page

Between a rock and an art place

By Mike Gunnerson
Staff Writer

In Greek mythology, ships navigating the narrow strait between Italy and the island of Sicily found it guarded by two creatures.

On one side there was Charybdis, a whirlpool so large that even the biggest and strongest ship might not survive.

On the other side stood Scylla, a six-headed monster disguised as a cliff, which struck as soon as the ship was within reach, each head taking one sailor.

Word about Scylla and Charybdis spread, but sailors faced a dilemma. Do they avoid Scylla and try to survive Charybdis’ wrath or do they avoid the whirlpool and surely lose six sailors to the hidden monster? They were caught between Scylla and Charybdis, the original rock and a hard place.

Gregor Mortis has felt that the art world has been trapped between these mythical monsters for decades. In order to make money and become known, artists would work to convince businesses to buy their work. The business would pay the artist and circulate their work, but only in exchange for owning the work’s rights, and the business could alter the work as they saw fit.

To Mortis, the businesses represent Scylla, allowing the artist’s work to pass but not without taking part of it for themselves.

So Mortis founded Charybdis. Seven years ago, Mortis said, he decided to give artists somewhere to create and circulate their art inside a business dedicated solely to artists and their art.

”I got tired of waiting for a place to give me a chance to do what I want to do,” Mortis said.

Charybdis Multi-Arts Complex, 4423 N. Milwaukee Ave., intends to give artists that chance. They could be painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, writers or any other kind of artist.

”Do whatever it takes,” Mortis said he tells artists. “You’ll have a place that will support you.”

Mortis, 30, said he treats all forms of art equally and strives to keep out competition. He feels competition has no place in art and it certainly has no place at Charybdis. Instead, he fuels an “atmosphere of respect” for both art, those associated with it, and all other people and things.

”If you have an atmosphere of respect you can do whatever the hell you want in here,” he said. “It’s oozing out of every corner. It’s a big, huge, thick fog of respect.”

Although respect alone does not pay Charybdis’ rent or heating bills, it does encourage the group’s members to make sure those expenses are paid. Having dealt with about 5,000 artists around the world within the last five years, Charybdis allows any artist with interest to become a member, as long as they help the group survive.

Usually, this means monetary donations, but it can also mean any number of other things. Last week, a local band donated steel trusses used to hang lights above a stage. As another example, Mortis said a group wanting to use Charybdis’ facilities might not have any money to donate, but would be willing to fix and decorate some part of the building instead.

”Anybody who’s an artist in any shape or form supports this idea because it does not exist,” he said.

Mortis first invented a place around this artistic ideal in a small storefront in the East Ukrainian Village. When he was 21, he relocated near Clybourn and Diversey avenues, in a warehouse near the Lathrop Homes housing project. After a few years there, Charybdis moved to Wicker Park in 1996.

Following Charybdis’ departure from Wicker Park in search of a larger space and new artistic climate, it opened in Jefferson Park in September.

Staying true to the group’s ideals, Mortis said he repeatedly denies requests to rent Charybdis for parties, saying the only money that comes into Charybdis is art-related money.

”l can’t tell you how many people want to throw parties here,” he said. “I’m not a banquet hall, I’m an artist. I have no interest in anything other than art. Everything in here is art-related. If it’s not art-related, it’s not here.”

Besides, Mortis said Charybdis hardly needs any financial helping hands.

”The only way we’re going to take money is from art,” he said. “We’re doing it ourselves. If we can’t do it ourselves, then we have no business doing it.”

Even though he is the driving force behind Charybdis, Mortis’ ambition does not pay well. In fact, it has never paid anything.

”No one gets paid here, not even me,” he said. “The only thing I can pay people with is (the freedom to do) what they want to do.”

But no paycheck does not deter Mortis from his dream - to make Charybdis attractive enough that artists never consider turning to Scylla.

”Nobody is going to stop me - nobody.”

Photo by Mitch Cerrone

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