Little Village’s Art Festival

Chicago’s Little Village is brimming with artistic talent. For a time, however, the medium of choice was spray paint and the canvas, a wall. Last weekend’s Little Village Arts Fest is part of the community’s effort to find new places to display artwork and bring exposure to its burgeoning art scene. For the past year, local artists have attended monthly workshops known as the Artists’ Café, allowing them to get to know each other and collaborate. The idea for the festival was born of the realization that many of them had work on display in every neighborhood except their own.

Since the first festival was held last August, a diverse array of businesses and community centers has opened its doors to art. The first gallery space was Ageless Tattoo, a tattoo parlor whose own artwork is displayed on the bodies of neighborhood residents. This blurring of art and life is essential to Victor Montañez, an artist and educator whose work could be found at the festival in Universidad Popular. In addition to viewing his paintings, he invited visitors to touch them and move their multiple pieces so that they revealed new forms and meanings. “Art is alive,” he said. “It’s part of a movement and part of a culture, not dead and untouchable like the art in museums. We’re trying to break the paradigm of what art is, because if you restrict yourself you can’t evolve.” To this end, he helped students create the unity-themed murals on display, as well as his own revolutionary- and Santana-inspired paintings. Also exhibiting his artwork was Orlando, a high school dropout who turned to art “to show my friends I have something to say.” Each of his pen-and-ink drawings contains a complex storyline, inscrutable if not for his explanations.

Spread out in ten locations across Little Village, the festival sites included a school, church, and café, in addition to the regular galleries. Art was visible everywhere in the neighborhood: elaborate decorations on every other front porch, the Virgin Mary on the back of a jacket, even a wall around which a group of teenagers had gathered to observe the creative process of a graffiti artist. A home functioning as a gallery seemed most representative of the Little Village arts scene. Frida Blue Sky Studios was the first “real” gallery established in the neighborhood, and it continues to be a gathering place for local artists. Draped with vibrantly colored scarves, jewelry, and paintings, its rooms are inviting in a way wholly unlike most galleries. For its owners, Marya and her daughter Yvanha, this is the goal: “We’re trying to teach kids about art, because parents often don’t appreciate artists. They get amazed when they see what their kid has made.” Still, the mother of a student who lives next door won’t let her daughter come over for lessons. Like life, art can sometimes be dangerous.