The arts of Oak Park: Slowfire

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Photo by Isabel Richmond

People working at the Slowfire studio at 634 Carpenter Avenue in Oak Park.

Tucked away among the South Oak Park residences on Carpenter Avenue is Slowfire. In a basement hidden down a small staircase in between the expanse of bushes of a garden path, with pottery wheels, tables filled with unfinished projects, and a couch taking away much of its floorspace, the studio is a sharp contrast to the wide windows and vast hardwood floors of ViaClay, which was featured in last month’s issue.

Founder Noelle Allen, who heads the Sculpture and Ceramics department at Dominican University in River Forest, was a sociology major at Smith College in Massachusetts until her sophomore year, when her interest in art suddenly kicked in. She went on to take sculpture classes at the Rhode Island School of Design and Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She received her MFA in sculpture from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004.

“I really couldn’t tell you (for sure) what the catalyst was, but I took one class on a whim my sophomore year of college,” Allen said. Allen’s teacher had come to the United States from Korea to teach the class.

 “It (the class) was (called) Korean Fibers and Sculpture, and (the teacher) was just amazing. She taught us all these technical skills and foundational skills, but she also encouraged us to think through the concept, the reasons why we were making (these items), and I realized pretty early on that I had ideas,” Allen said.

In turn, Allen created such a small studio because she wants her students to get the “quality instruction” she got as an undergraduate. “They get hands-on professional help, the whole time they learn, and if I keep the class sizes really small, they get really quality art foundational skills,” Allen said. “I’m not looking to just have a mill of students coming in and out. I want people coming here who are dedicated to learning art.”

Slowfire began only offering clay and wheel throwing classes, but has since expanded to offer various private art lessons, from drawing, painting, and graphic design to printmaking and candle making. Costs range from $45 for one-day classes on Saturdays to $450 for two-month summer camps. Each class is staggered so that classes are at different times during the day and on different days of the week. 

“I had an art career where I was showing at galleries and museums … Slowfire was initially an offshoot of my fine art career,” Allen said. She started off by herself making functional ceramic objects, but at the start of the pandemic, some of her son’s friends needed a “safe space with a qualified teacher who had a studio” to have an outlet.

After opening her doors for a few private lessons, she began to advertise on social media. Eventually, Allen had so many private students she needed to hire more teachers and create separate age groups for her classes. 

Oak Park resident Mina Zardkoohi has been taking classes at Slowfire since last September, but her two kids have been taking classes since the fall of 2020. “I like art … I never really had time to prioritize it at home, so I thought it would be nice to do a little sculpture and clay,” she said. Although Slowfire has a Facebook page, Zardkoohi found out about the studio through another local artist who is a friend of Allen’s. 

“In a small studio, you get a lot of one-on-one attention,” Zardkoohi said. “It takes a lot of equipment and knowledge to deal with clay. It’s not just a sit-up-and-draw – (you need to be taught) how the clay works.” 

Allen, who has a child with special needs, also hopes to provide a safe space for people of all different identities. She helps her students develop portfolios for their postsecondary education, and funds scholarships through private donors and out of her own pocket.

 However, Allen said it is often harder for her to reach high schoolers, and most of her students are middle schoolers. 

“I would love to see more high school students come in, because one of the things I really specialize in is helping people get into college … I have two students right now who I’m working with closely to help develop their art portfolios,” Allen said.

Allen said she doesn’t post many advertisements for Slowfire on its Facebook page. OPRF “has a fantastic art program, in part due to ViaClay,” she said. “There’s a wonderful teacher at the Oak Park school, and she also teaches at ViaClay, so there’s a relationship between the two studios … I haven’t really wanted to step on their toes.”

“Visibility is a challenge,” Allen said, both on Facebook and in the neighborhood with the studio as small and hidden as it is. “I think that when people give us a try, they understand what we do and our retention rate is really high. But I think getting the word out there about what we do is challenging.”

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