Interview with Karen Schulz-Harmon: Ossia Fine Arts Space

Karen Schulz Harmon
Photo Credit:
Claude-Aline Nazaire

Karen Schulz-Harmon opened Ossia Fine Arts Space in the Fine Arts Building in December 2006. Located on the 5th floor, with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a balcony and courtyard, the space has been host to 6 shows by various artists, primarily Chicago based. As a professional cellist and music teacher, she uses the space as a combination art gallery and performance space for the Chicago community to showcase talented artists, musicians and performance artists. (All images are courtesy of Karen Schulz-Harmon, except where noted.)

ArtStyle: What type of shows have you had in the Ossia (pronounced OH-see-yah) space?

Karen Schulz-Harmon (KSH): My first show in December 2006 was Group Show, which focused on the juxtaposition of various painting styles.


Group Show features the art of Sigfredo Vélez, Jr., surrealist painter; Mie Tamura, naturalist painter; Jill McLean, abstract painter; and Eric Mecum, realist painter

Coffee and Windows opened in March and featured the paintings of Beatriz Ledesma and Anita Miller — surrealism and social realism on view.

UNTITLED, in May, was a study of contrasting styles and how they overlapped. It was with this show that Ossia was placed on the map, in terms of press. The first article written on our space was by Yolanda Perdomo for the Chicago Journal. We were fortunate to be afforded such a wonderful spread, too.

The Unknown, in July, was a guest-curated show by Rebecca Martin and Samiayah Wright. A group of artists, who also happened to be employees of the Art Institute, decided they wanted to have a show together, so they approached me about using my gallery. This show also featured undiscovered singer/songwriter Tovi Khali and her band (Jen ne Sais Quoi) — they performed at the closing reception to great acclaim. This was also the first time I actually had live music paired with an art exhibit.

Recently Snapshot featured the work of Liza Berkoff, a photographer, and Marc McGowan, a mixed-media photographer.

The current show, Text and Time, features Chicago-based composer Drew Baker and his brother Brett Baker, a New York-based, Guggenheim-winning painter. The two brothers had been collaborating on a few excerpts of text since January. At the opening reception, there was a performance of Drew's composition surrounded by Brett's art work. If people missed the live performance, they will still be able to experience the music through my Bose system. The system will be circulating INTER, the piece Drew wrote for the exhibition, along with his other original compositions — music which Brett also listens to when he's painting. One of the great things about this show is that it was the first time I actually performed at one of my own art exhibit receptions. We're having another performance and reception on November 9th, and the show closes on December 14th.

ArtStyle: How did you start the gallery?


KSH: I was originally looking for a place to have my students perform recitals. I also thought about a space for my trio (The Chicago Trio) to have concerts — I thought it would be a great downtown venue where we could come and give salon-style performances.

Ossia View of Courtyard
Photo credit: A. Rudberg

I was also on good terms with the building manager, and I had already been renting a smaller studio in the building for over a year. So I inquired if there were any larger spaces available in the building, and within two weeks he called me about an 800-SF studio with a spectacular balcony view. Knowing that studios like this don't come around too often, I immediately signed the lease. This was a big decision for me because I had no experience at all as a curator, and I didn't have anyone lined up to exhibit at that time. Not to mention the money, time, and energy it was going to take to turn the space into an art gallery / performance venue. It became one of those leaps of faith, which in retrospect, I am very glad to have made. I am also very lucky and thankful that my husband supported this decision.

ArtStyle: How did you come up with the name?

KSH: Being a musician first and foremost, I knew that I wanted a name with a musical reference. Ossia (pronounced OH-see-yah), an Italian music term, means alternative way or method. I thought of this space as an alternative space because it functions as a performance space, but it also functions as an art gallery, which is not typical for most galleries.


Coffee and Windows expresses a quest for the unknown and searches for rational understanding through mysterious figures and dressers. Art by Anita Miller and Beatriz Ledesma.

ArtStyle: How did you come up with the idea of a performance space and art gallery?

KSH: At first I just wanted it to be a space for teaching and performing, but as I looked at all of the great wall space, I thought it would be a shame not to make better use of it. I've always been interested in art, and attend art museums as often as time permits, especially when my husband and I visit new cities. It's always a treat to go their MOMA. So I have developed a great appreciation for art even though I'm not an artist myself. And I must admit that it's nice to be able to play in a space filled with art. It just has a totally different vibe and feel for me.


This exhibition features four Chicago Artists of varying ages with different artistic backgrounds. The show is labeled UNTITLED because there is no obvious unifying theme among the artists and their works, an intentional choice by the gallery’s curator, Karen Schulz-Harmon. With this as the established premise, the audience has the freedom to connect their own dots and subsequently draw their own conclusions from their visual experience. If you’re in the area stop by Ossia Fine Arts Space and take in the view from the Carousel to the Statue of Liberty, through the Blossoms down to Lake Michigan. — Yolanda Perdomo in Chicago Journal. Artists: James Basile, Deborah A. Doering, Richard Laurent, and Eric Mecum.

ArtStyle: What's your musical background?

KSH: I started playing violin and piano when I was 7 years old. I began playing the cello in high school at age 15, and it came to me very quickly — somehow I knew this was my instrument. My parents, Paul and Joan Schulz, were very supportive of my cello playing and immediately enrolled me in private lessons, where I really excelled. After two years playing cello, I auditioned for the conservatory and school of arts (CASA) in St. Louis and got into their top orchestra. I did that for a couple of years and then in my senior year of high school, I made it into the St. Louis Philharmonic and played with them for several years. I was also accepted into the All State Orchestra, which takes cellists from schools throughout the state. Everything continued to happen really fast with the cello, which reaffirmed that this was the instrument I was meant to play and the road I should travel down.

Things continued to go well, as I received a full scholarship to college and made it into the St. Louis Youth Symphony. While in school, I met my husband, Andrew Harmon, a double bass player. After we were married in 1999, we moved to Chicago to begin our graduate studies. I was accepted into Northwestern University to study with Hans Jensen, but was waitlisted my first year. I ended up taking 3 years off studying in school and instead studied privately with Hans Jensen for 2 years. Then I ended up getting into the University of Chicago's chamber music program. I was not a student at the university, but because I played in their symphonic orchestra, I was allowed to participate in another music program they offered. This enabled me to study with the Pacifica String Quartet for a year. So even though I had taken 3 years off from school, I was doing very much the same activities that a student who was enrolled would be doing, so I felt like I was in school.

Chicago Trio: (left to right) Karen Schulz-Harmon, Christie Abe, Mirei Hori

Then I started studying with Marc Johnson, who was the cellist with the Vermeer String Quartet, and he suggested that I get my master's with him at NIU (Northern Illinois University). They offered me a full scholarship and that sealed the deal. After graduating and attaining my master's degree in Cello Performance from NIU, I started auditioning for professional orchestras. I played with the Peoria Symphony for a year and now I'm on the sub list for many symphonies (Elgin Symphony, Illinois Symphony, Lincolnwood Chamber Orchestra, and Rockford Symphony to name a few). At the moment, being a sub is nice because it affords me the freedom to pursue other avenues, which ultimately gives me a more flexible schedule (well, most of the time until everything collides at once, which unfortunately happens at least twice a year). My ultimate goal, however, is to get into Lyric Opera or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Andrew and I have decided to stay in Chicago for the time being, and because of this choice we've limited ourselves to auditioning for orchestras in town. These auditions don't come along very often and sometimes you feel that you should be doing something more or giving back in another way — you cannot sit around twiddling your thumbs waiting for an audition to come your way. So you could say that Ossia evolved because I was compelled to act and to cultivate a creative space for artists.


This exhibition features works of 12 undiscovered Chicago artists. Together, these 12 diverse artists are the “the unknown.” Individually, each is an undiscovered painter, photographer, sketch artist or sculptor.

ArtStyle: When you mention performance, are you just talking about music or other types of performance for the space?

KSH: We've had a fashion show / jewelry show here and a dance instructor from the Art Institute rented the space for a few ballet rehearsals. The performance aspect is more geared towards music performances and not so much towards dance, although I could foresee small dance performances in the space. Musical performances include a myriad of different genres and groups: contemporary music, classical music and chamber music. For instance dal niente, a contemporary music group, has performed at Ossia along with a great composer friend of mine, James Falzone, with his ensemble Allos Musica. I've also thought about poetry readings or even book readings. It's a totally open space for events like this, not just music or art. The great thing is that the art is always in the background, no matter what is happening. That's why I refer to it as more of an art gallery; the music happens more sporadically.


The press release for this show caught the eye of Kristin Gehring and inspired her editorial, On the Scene, published in the Chicago Journal.

ArtStyle: When do you schedule performances?

KSH: Performances are not happening every week, yet. There will be 2 performances in November, and 3 performances in December. Some of them haven't been posted on the website yet, but they should be up soon. Sometimes people call me and ask if they can come in and have a recital within the next week or month. I've had this happen on several occasions and am always happy to oblige when the schedule permits. In general, though, I would love to have more concerts taking place at Ossia for sure.

Text and Time

Chicago-based composer Drew Baker and his brother Brett Baker, a New York-based, Guggenheim-winning painter, join forces to bring us Text and Time. Their collaboration seeks to overcome apparent barriers between the spatial and the aural / acoustic through that which is both — language. In the work of each artist conventions of language experience (visual / reading — aural / recitation) are subverted and reconstructed.

ArtStyle: Are you thinking of having your own concert series in the space?

KSH: There is no set schedule for concerts at the moment; they happen when I receive a request or when my trio is performing. Eventually I'd like to have a regular concert series where you could come, for example, the same night each month and know that there's a concert happening at Ossia. I'm not at that point yet, but would love to have more music performances in the gallery on a more regular basis.

ArtStyle: What's your schedule like for next year?

KSH: Next year is pretty open although I do have several artists lined up. For instance, Eric Mecum is going to come back with a solo show. Beatriz Ledesma is going to collaborate with an opera singer for her next exhibit. In January 2008, Josh Garrett will have a solo show. His exhibit will feature metal artwork for which he has developed his own distinctive technique / application for this more radical medium of choice.

ArtStyle: What are you looking to show in art?

KSH: I'm looking for good quality art, art that has depth to it. I'm looking for an artist who really has talent, someone who's doing something that is unique. There's also something about the presentation. I feel that a lot of artists have talent, but they don't know how to present their art. I'm learning from every show, and for every show I'm becoming more and more selective. More recently I have had many artists submitting to exhibit at Ossia, which helps make putting together themed shows much easier. In general I like to give a chance to someone who has a true gift / vision and to help someone gain more exposure by exhibiting in a gallery located downtown.

ArtStyle: What's your dream?

KSH: Besides getting into the Lyric Opera or CSO, I've had a goal to build a school from the ground up that would be a completely green building — this would make the environmentalist in me very happy. It would be an extracurricular school housing the fine arts — dance, art and music. Ossia is the seed. Somehow if I could attain a grant or funding, we would have operas commissioned (attending and playing operas is a passion of mine). The wonderful thing about opera is that it brings together all of the fine arts with music, drama, dance and visual / mixed-media art. Opera is the ultimate music drama. A culminating performance of the year would bring together all of the art departments by coordinating one huge project of original composition. Once such a school is built, I don't think I see myself handling administrative tasks, but rather continuing to teach and perform — my two greatest loves besides my wonderful husband.

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