Save the Whale: After a devastating fire, a Pilsen artists’ society rallies together to rebuild

A lamprey is a parasite that feeds on underbellies. But in Chicago, the Lampreys are whoever is in the kitchen of Kenneth Morrison. That kitchen, though, and the building that once enclosed it, no longer exist. Morrison, Michelle Faust, and Nat Ward, the trio who started the Chicago artists’ society the Ever-So-Secret Order of the Lamprey, lost all their possessions recently in the December 17 fire that destroyed their home and the nerve-center of the Lampreys, a building in Pilsen they had christened the Whale.

For ten years, the Ever-So-Secret Order of the Lamprey has met under the auspices of a word, and, until the fire, in the depths of the Whale. Visitors to the Whale were unpredictable and members in the society changed depending on the week. The society was never a secret and there are no requirements for membership. It is characterized by the unexpected.

Morrison is a metal sculptor who opened his doors to the Chicago community. Calling the organization “Ever-So-Secret” was a characteristic critique of the glamour of exclusion and secrecy, the opposite of the philosophy of the organization. Anyone was welcome—in Morrison’s view, one shared by many others, the community owned the residence. “That’s why it was called the Whale and not Kenneth’s place,” he says.

A meeting of the Ever-So-Secret Order of the Lamprey includes these agenda points: food, drink, celebration, making, chatting, arguing. Also included is an ever-present element of familiarity and surprise. Mairead Case, a member since moving to Chicago, calls the Whale an “immediate family.” Lampreys are connected by what each person creates, regardless of age, profession, nationality, or position on healthcare.

“At every meeting we had a word,” says Jerry Boyle, a lawyer and member of the Lampreys. “‘Scissors.’ Say the word was scissors. Everybody who came was supposed to bring a piece that had something to do with the word scissors. It could range from a painting or a drawing or a sculpture or a performance, but it had to have something to do with the word scissors.”

The weekly process of a meeting goes like this: someone is elected adjudicator, on no basis other than chance. This person assumes a particular cloaking: cape, scepter (pipe-cleaning brush), hat…what Boyle calls “the chains of obligation.” The art that members have made based on the word is called forth, and the chosen one commences to judge. Awards are distributed.

Case described one week where the word was “jealousy.” Someone cut up little pieces of paper, put them in envelopes, and passed them out. There were not enough envelopes for everyone at the meeting.

Once the word was “spicy.” A computer programmer, in a singular act of obsession, sewed two hundred chili peppers to his underwear. Then, in another singular act, he arrived in Morrison’s kitchen wearing only his fringed underwear and proceeded to dance in an unexpectedly improvisation-rich performance.

He was not ostracized or awarded a blue ribbon. His contribution and presence—even his performance—were accepted in the secret society to the same degree the work of everyone else was, including University of Chicago grad students, professional painters, actors, social workers, and attorneys at law.

Like any membership society, there are non-negotiable rituals involved in its gatherings. “They would give out award-slash-punishments. Every member was expected to contribute an award-slash-punishment. Thing is, you didn’t get to keep the award-slash-punishment, and you didn’t get to keep your piece, either. The piece became the property of the archive.” Examples of titles bestowed upon notable work: “The Gourd of Insignificance,” “The Matted Hair of Revulsion,” and “The Banana of Ill Repute.”

The Whale was not just a networking center for active, creative minds—it was a place where borders were nudged and boundaries dismissed in a host of other ways. Many of the gatherings were raucous and fun—events like pig roasts and “the Real Saint Patrick’s Day Parade” (“We didn’t have a permit,” says Boyle). More importantly, though, there was an effect of equalizing and making two people from different experience sets learn, innovate, and enjoy together. In a supportive, experimental atmosphere, people were encouraged to leave normalcy at the front door—to push their creative inclinations free of negative repercussions, save good-natured teasing.

Not every piece was genius. There were, however, moments of brilliance. A young woman wrote a poem, wrapped it around her body, and her fiance read it as she stood. There were eye-rolling concepts with results grudgingly deemed good—rose petals burned into a violin case. And there were complete failures, as sometimes happens with experimentation and lawyers trying interpretive dance. “People would bring pieces and the fire wouldn’t light, or the eyeball would pop out,” says Case.

But it was all in good fun—which, of course, was the point.

Morrison described the initial motivation for opening his doors to the Lampreys as a result of a certain deadening of adventurism that happens when art turns from passion to profession. He started the Order of the Lamprey in 1997 with the idea of regaining the joy and electric inspiration he experienced in art school.

“We usually manage to challenge people to do things a little different, which was the idea,” he says of the Lampreys.
The night of the fire was also opening night at the Hideout’s annual Holiday Panto, a tradition at the North Side bar and venue where Ward works. This year’s pantomime, “Ho Ho Ho the Humanity,” told the story of Santa Claus’s earlier career as a zeppelin pirate, and the inhabitants of the Whale, as yearly participants, were at the performance.

“They had to cancel the Panto. Most of the cast ended up [at the Whale], which was kind of bizarre, because we had a whole bunch of people dressed up as pirates doing the board-up and cleanup,” Boyle notes.

Since the fire, there has been a rallying of the community surrounding the Lampreys in direct proportion to the generosity displayed by the hosts of the society. “I’ve met most of the people I know in Chicago in my kitchen,” Morrison says. After the fire at the Whale, that kitchen is no longer in operation. What does remain, though, is the meaning invested in background-blind art, appreciated for its animation of new ideas rather than value at auction, and the wide net of people invested in the Whale. And that net is giving back, with Lampreys donating time and supplies to help bring the building back from the dead.

The Lampreys hail from as broad a canvas as the city itself—a rarity in a metropolis known for culture-specific coves of dynamicism. The Whale took Lincoln Park to Bronzeville and initiated them both in the fare offered in Wrigleyville, and started doing it long before anyone noticed the authenticity and ragged charm of Pilsen, where it was all happening. The people involved prided themselves on dropping pretense in favor of exploration and thoughtful criticism. The Whale might be gone for now, but Chicago can do its utmost to make sure the Order of the Lamprey survives as an inclusive example of pursuit of inspiration and an approach to art that places importance on such neglected concepts as “because it is fun” and “‘underbellies.”