On, Above and Behind Sherman Avenue, a series of profiles, gives our readers the opportunity to learn more about the people and businesses that would have been displaced, and the buildings that would have disappeared if a recent development proposal had not been withdrawn. The proposal called for demolition of about half of the buildings along the west side of the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue in Evanston.
Doug Haight, Fortune Fish Films, 1718 Sherman Ave.
“The photographic perspective never turns off . . . I can bring back my version of Cuba,” said Doug Haight. “It’s kind of like that picture [he points to a picture on the wall nearby], that girl in the doorway of a typical crumbling Cuban building holds a bright purple balloon. That’s Cuba. People are so full of life, and they’re happy, even with all the things we think they’re lacking and all the things we think they are restricted by.”
Mr. Haight, the owner of Fortune Fish Films, is a video producer and photographer and spends a lot of time on fine art photography. He produces what he calls corporate-style films, but said that includes projects outside the corporate world. He often works with Northwestern University on a range of things, including a recent piece for the music school, to help promote its season. He said that it’s an advantage to be physically close to the University because of the size of photographic and film files, which he often drops off in-person.
Speaking about his work in video he said, “What I’m best at, what I enjoy the most is meeting people and representing the way they speak. I tend not to use scripts or a lot of voiceovers. I interview people and put things together in a way that represents what they do, but in the way that they describe it. That can be about the program they’re trying to promote, or the business, or the person. It is about talking to people – it’s the same with films and with portraits, and with street photography. I’m always amazed at what can be learned in a half an hour . . . It’s fun to learn about other people, learn about their passions and what drives them . . . What I’m passionate about is telling stories, whether they’re mine or someone else’s.”
He said that his business is centrally located in Evanston not just because of his work with Northwestern, but also to be close to other Evanston clients, and because he wants to be able to walk to work every day. When his kids, who are now in college and high school, were younger they would walk to his studio after school and they’d do their homework or go down the street and get something to eat.
Speaking about the building itself, he said that people are drawn to it, that newer buildings feel sterile and characterless by comparison. “I wanted an upper-floor studio because of all the light,” said Mr. Haight. “Sometimes in the afternoon on a sunny day in the summer, I have to close the blinds – it just gets too warm in here, but the opposite works in the winter, when the sun warms things up.” He says that the size of the room and height of the ceilings makes it a good place to shoot portraits. He also likes the sink in the corner, which he said is an example of the quirks in the building and something he uses more than he would have imagined.
But, he said it is the community in the building that he cares about most. “There’s people walking up and down the hall, and talking across the hall. Over time there’s been some turnover in the building, but I’ve met everybody. A lot of people leave their doors open like I do. You know, you don’t always find that.”
Stephan Tran, Studio Pax, 1718 Sherman Ave.
“I meet so many people that have grown up in Evanston, who have moved away and come back. It’s a very communal city,” said Stephan Tran, founder and principal at Studio Pax. “To me the idea of managing the public spaces, which sometimes the City does really well – like the development of Fountain Square . . . it can create a communal center, where people go to gather together.”
Mr. Tran, who realized that design is what interested him most, grew up in France, and said, “In Europe, in Paris, for example, development has to be contextual. There has to be a dialogue, which doesn’t mean it has to be conservative. It feels like that doesn’t always happen here . . . It’s the vision that’s important. The question is, ‘What is Evanston going to be?’ ”
Studio Pax is a branding and communications firm, which does a great deal of digital work and has both small and large clients. It has done a lot of work for Northwestern, including the Arts Circle initiative, which included branding all the arts schools together under one overarching brand.
In naming Studio Pax, Mr. Tran was inspired by an engraving that he and his wife had purchased titled Pax Rodentia, Latin for Peace of the Rodent. The engraving depicts a sleeping rat. He explained that while the rat is repulsive to most, it is smart and persistent, and similarly, aesthetics are not always representative of what’s underneath.
“We did work for the Field Museum, for example. They came to us and we developed a narrative and running experience for an exhibit. I think we’re good at creating a cultural experience mixed with branding and other elements,” said Mr. Tran. “To me, you need to get people interested. We are able to transform people’s visions into creative, fantastic campaigns . . . We reveal the genius they have in there . . . It’s a very people-driven business and I’m a very people-driven person.”
Studio Pax is an interdisciplinary group of five, including Mr. Tran, two full-time employees, two free-lancers, and “always an intern.” Mr. Tran started the company in 2005. He explained that in December of 2004 everyone in the digital department of the company he was working for was laid off. “So, it was Christmas and I was like, ‘I don’t have a job anymore,’ and we were expecting our first kid in February . . . But I roll with the punches pretty well.”
Mr. Tran explained that his firm will have relocated to Davis Street by the begining of August because of space concerns. He said that he will miss the building’s community and the building itself. “I connected with the building – with the sense of history. It’s like an old school. There’s a lot of charm with it.”
He also talked about what he will miss on Sherman Avenue. “There is quite a bit that happens on Sherman. It is quite a view of humanity – both the good and the bad that happens . . . It’s a theater of life, and sometimes it’s vaudevillian. From the canvassers to the families to those that are homeless, and the circadian rhythm of the school kids coming in and out. It’s very interesting to see all of the seasons of Evanston happening through its downtown.”
Asked about the name of his company, Studio Pax, he said it comes from the firm’s original name, Pax Rodent, which is Latin for the peace of the rodent.