Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

Artist Julie Cowan is not waiting for an all-clear signal from COVID to reinvigorate the arts community she began drawing together when she launched artruck, an art exhibit and festival, in 2011. She is inspiring artists now with a virus-inflected exercise she is calling artruckISH. With it, she is laying the groundwork for a future in-person return of artruck, which she and her partner reprised once or twice a year from its inception till the pandemic put on the brakes.

Ms. Cowan says she observed two kinds of people during the pandemic – those who were unable to work and those who were inspired to work a lot. She counts herself among the second group and says she “loves to encourage people to make things.” This month, she is engaging artists in an art-making activity – artruckISH.

While isolated by the virus, she acquired a printing press. Using it for embossing paper (pressing a design on a surface so it stands out in relief) generated an idea for a prompt for artists. She embossed 100 sheets of 8.5”by 11” paper with the outline of a room or the inside of a truck and invited 100 artists to pick up a sheet during the month of March. They are to make any kind of 2-D artwork on that sheet and return it in April.

“I’m very flexible about ‘art’,” Ms. Cowan says. “It could be words.”  Seventy artists have responded to date. In April, the works from artruckISH will migrate to an online web gallery and, when an in-person gathering is feasible, will be displayed during a celebratory return of artruck.

Artruck grew out of Ms. Cowan’s wish to find an arts community. She was looking for a way to exhibit the work of less established artists – those who, like her, were without gallery representation or other consistent exposure. She hit upon the Idea of creating a space for an exhibit where people could submit their own work rather than leaving the selection to a jury.

By establishing this “low barrier for entry,” Ms. Cowan says, she made the process “less scary” for new or inexperienced artists.

Finding the right venue was a stumbling block. With brick-and-mortar locations unaffordable, she began thinking about a temporary solution. Her first idea was to situate a shipping container in her back yard and hang the artwork there. It was an idea her partner rejected immediately. Her better proposal, she says, was to rent a truck and hold an ephemeral, one-night art show there.

She kept the guidelines simple, with just two rules for participating artists. They could exhibit for free, but they were to bring food to share. And at the end of the evening, they were to take everything home, because the rental trucks, like Cinderella’s carriage, were on borrowed time, obliged to return to their mundane roles by morning.

Her partner devised a way to hang the artwork and string construction lights. And then, Ms. Cowan says, they paused and thought, “What if no one comes?”

They need not have worried. Enough artists responded that one moving truck was insufficient. On the morning of Oct. 24, 2011, they parked two rental trucks on their street, back-to-back with ramps extended. Around 7:30 p.m., people began to arrive – a crowd of 200 or more by evening’s end, talking about the art and enjoying the cuisine. David Bond, Ms. Cowan’s neighbor from across the street, added to the feast with 60 loaves of his artisanal bread and 500 cookies.  

Through the years, artruck became a beloved tradition, eagerly attended by artists and their family and friends. It continued to be free to all. There were no sponsors and no commercial angles. Artists were free sell their works but handled the transactions themselves.

With artruck and its progeny, artruckISH, Ms. Cowan is in her element, encouraging in others the creativity she exudes. Her message has special resonance in the pandemic. “Making something feels so good,” she says.