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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Archives: 2004

The other artists' colony
Chicago Artists' Months offers a behind-the-scene peek at Pilsen's ascendant art scene
By Lauren Viera
Photography by Todd Judge, Stuart-Rodgers Photography
(from The Chicago Social magazine October 2004)
Robin Rios and Jerod Schmidt of 4Art Inc.

Despite soaring property values and gentrification, Pilsen has preserved itself as an artist colony largely untouched by the commercial exploitation that's robbed the Wicker Park art scene of much of its former autonomy and innocence. During the city's ninth annual Chicago Artists' Month in October, Pilsen welcomes intrepid art lovers to the doorsteps of more than 100 studios and live-work dwellings.

The month is bookended by a pair of free weekend events that showcase two sides of the neighborhood's artistic prowess. East Pilsen hosts its venerable 34th annual Artists' Open House on October 1-3, while West Pilsen presents its second annual Pilsen Open Studios on October 30-31. One might assume that a neighborhood seemingly divided, albeit for the purpose of real estate zoning, would suffer civil competition. But in this case, the art, artists and ethics vary so dramatically within Pilsen that comparisons are practically moot.

The East Pilsen event falls under the aegis of the recently christened "Chicago Arts District," which--according to representatives of Podmajerksy Management, Inc., the third-generation, family-owned real estate company that owns many of the buildings in the neighborhood--encompasses an area along Halsted Street from 16th Street south to Cermak Road. The Podmajerkskys have long fashioned themselves as advocates of rehabbing vintage buildings and storefronts into studio/loft spaces ideal for artists. Artists' Open House was first organized in the summer of 1970 by developer John Pdmajerksy, Jr.'s wife, Annelies, who by that time had helped establish a successful artists' community of lofts and studios within a 12-square-block area.

Vespine Gallery
"There's been a lot of art going on here for a long time," says Artists' Open House director Cynthia West. "The Podmajerskys wanted people around the city to discover the artists here, but they wanted to do it in a way that was intimate and would make people feel welcome."

Encompassing the neighborhood and its gardens (lush attractions in their own right), the Artists' Open House has grown to include as many as 120 established and emerging artists. The event also includes galleries along Halsted (who welcome visitors to show openings year-round on the second Friday of every month) and communal gallery spaces reserved for artists whose studios lie just beyond walking distance from the strip.

Though a handful of progressive East Pilsen galleries--Meat Yard, Fleur, Drivethru Studios and Bucket Rider Gallery--have recently closed or relocated, newcomers have sprung up along Halsted. 4Art Inc. was opened last October by Illinois Institute of Art graduate Robin Rios and business partner Jerod Schmidt, and the two credit the open house event for increased traffic. "A lot of people are starting to come around and see what's going on here," says Rios, adding that, since her gallery's debut, she's noticed a different type of crowd. "At first it was just gallery-hoppers and after-hours partiers. But now people are looking to buy art."

Dubhe Carreño
Dubhe Carreño, a Venezuelan-born ceramicist and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute, is opening a gallery on Halsted this month. She plans to show contemporary ceramic art bye emerging and mid-career artists from the United States and abroad. The gallery's first show will feature new works by Venezuelan sculptor Mariana Monteaguado. "I had been a visitor at the Artists' Open House before, and was amazed at how many people came and how much energy there was in the area," Carreño says. "I'm here because I hope the area will become more gallery-oriented." Other recently opened galleries on Halsted include Opposite Gallery, Vespine Studios & Gallery, Sally Ko Studio and Pilsen Photo Group.

West on 18th Street, a slightly more intimate, grassroots crowd sets the scene for the Pilsen Open Studios event. Its participating artists' studios are tucked into the predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood centered around the stretch of 18th Street from Ashland west to Damen. Community centers, cafés and the exemplary Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum will also show works by local artists. Free shuttle vans will be on hand to ferry visitors from one cluster of participants to another.

The seeds of this event were sown last October, when Pilsen muralist Hector Duarte was chosen as one of 12 artists spotlit in Chicago Artists' Month, a citywide visual-arts initiative coordinated by the Department of Cultural Affairs. Duarte, who has deep roots in Pilsen, was asked by the city to help organize what became the first annual Pilsen Open Studios.
Hector Duarte
Duarte got the ball running in a hurry. "In one wee, I reached 13 to 14 studios. After two weeks, I had about 20," he says. Ultimately, 26 venues, including both artists' studios and public spaces, signed on, and Duarte's wife, Daily Southtown reporter Linda Lutton, was brought on in to handle planning and media logistics for the event.

Salable works are not the point in West Pilsen, says Duarte: "it's not a business, it's a small town. It's more important that people come to see your space and what you make. It's not like, 'How did you make that? Why did you put an image of a heart in your work?' And we answer, 'It's part of the Mexican culture."

Miguel Cortez of Polvo Art Studio
Miguel Cortez, a founding member of Polvo Art Studio, helped to rally the first Pilsen Open Studios and will participate again this year. Polvo, which also puts out a politically charged arts publication of the same name, has occupied four different spaces over its eight-year existence and the current space doubles as Cortez's living quarters. Both the physical gallery space and the publication support conceptual and political multicultural arts, with and emphasis on work by latino artists.

Artists with diverse backgrounds are drawn to the neighborhood for both its Mexican culture and the rawness of its buildings, Cortez says. Polvo's modest 700-square-foot space is located in an old building on 18th Street, and the center of its floor is warped like a speed bump.

The studios provide a telling glimpse of how intrinsic art is to the lifeblood of this community. They're clustered in colorful storefronts and in converted basements, often in buildings that predate the Chicago Fire of 1871. These private spaces, such as the joint studio of Jeff Abbey Maldonado and drawing/text artist Diana Solis, and painter/sculptor Mark Nelson's self-deprecatingly named "Gringolandia" studio, are strewn with vibrant works and ideas in the process of being brought to life.

"It's definitely less glossy here," Cortez says. "I don't have track lighting, and for most of the artists who have studios, it's similar. But with this event, they're opening their doors to the public so people can see where they work, how they work, and what they produce.
© Chicago Social Magazine 2004
5 : : : P O L V O : : :: Archives: 2004 The other artists' colony Chicago Artists' Months offers a behind-the-scene peek at Pilsen's ascendant art scene By Lauren Vier...

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