Puerto Rican Artist Communities

“Best of Chicago Art Magazine” series. Originally appeared on the site 9/01/2010

Roxanne Samer

This article is not a roundup of Puerto Rican artists. It’s not about Puerto Rican identity art. This article is about prominent, talented artists that exhibit art in self-identified Puero Rican exhibition spaces, or in similarly themed shows. This is an extremely imporant distinction, as there are many fine artists of Puerto Rican decent who aren’t on this list because they don’t exhibit in these particular venues and shows.  What this article wishes to describe, however, is a community of linked galleries in an particular area that makes such strong work, it deserves wider recognition by the larger art community that may be unfamiliar with this amazing area and group of artists.

Candida Alvarez, Black Cherry Pit

Neighborhood & Cultural History
Puerto Ricans began immigrating to Chicago in substantive numbers first from New York City and then from Puerto Rico itself in the 1930s and 40s, often settling on the city’s north side in what is now Lincoln Park. They were, however, quickly forced by gentrification to move west, and by the late-sixties most Puerto Ricans in Chicago lived in Humboldt Park, which was then considered an economic dead zone. Yet culturally the  culture did not suffer, as many, identifying greatly with their homeland, continued to practice the arts and music of Puerto Rico, as well as gaining office in local political stations in order to represent the concerns of the oft-underrepresented Puerto Rican population. In 1995, Humboldt Park transformed into one of the most vibrant Latino neighborhoods in Chicago, as community leaders christened Division Street between Western Avenue and California Avenue “Paseo Boricua” and installed two monumental metal Puerto Rican flags across the street at each end of the strip.

Art Venues, Artists, and Organizers
The Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture is located on Division Street in the old Humboldt Park Stables at the western entrance to Paseo Boricua. Currently undergoing the last of many renovations, the IPRAC is the only “self-standing cultural institution in the nation devoted to showcasing and preserving Puerto Rican arts and historic exhibitions year-round.” It is one of a few organizations in the city that regularly devotes entire exhibitions to the art of Puerto Ricans living in Chicago. The Puerto Rican Day Parade and Festival, hosted every June, and other public events held in Paseo Boricua are also sites where concentrations of Puerto Rican art can be found. But like any other grouping of art or artists, the work being made by Puerto Ricans and those of Puerto Rican descent in Chicago is plentiful, diverse and to be found everywhere and anywhere you can imagine. But here are some that are particularly of note and illustrate the offerings in the area.

Star Padilla, Freedom To Ride Mural

Candida Alvarezis a full professor in the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She says that, “as an artist who teaches, I like to create a classroom environment where students feel comfortable taking risks, where they learn to think critically and where skill development is a given…My aim is to push students to question so their engagement moves outside of the familiar.” In the eleven years that she has been teaching at SAIC, Alvarez has worked with a number of Latino students, including Puerto Rican artists Edra Soto, Pedro Velez, Steve Cordero, David Cordero, Brenda Torres Figueroa, Angel Otero, Sebastian Vallejo and Nora Nieves. In her own work, Alvarez often begins by looking to contemporary culture, picking a photograph that she is drawn to from a magazine or newspaper as a starting point. She then transforms the picture through the drawing process, creating a template for a future painting, within which the origins of the image become shredded, practically indistinguishable. As a child growing up in New York, she says that Puerto Rico was the dreamy place of her parents’ stories. Now that they have returned and she visits regularly, it is a real place in real time, though just as lovely.

Josue Pellot, Conquistadors At It Again, This Time In Neon

Star Padilla is a Chicago-born teacher, artist, painter, muralist, and children’s book illustrator. She spends a majority of her time as a freelance mural painting instructor, and has been working with students in Chicago’s public and private schools for fifteen years. In the last year alone, she has lead the painting of murals in Englewood, Cabrini Green, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park, Logan Square, Old Irving Park and Evanston. And she loves the work: “I love working with youth and teaching them that art is more than a hobby or a talent, to the committed personality it’s a way of life.  But I also teach kids that art is a wonderful way to express oneself no matter what’s going on in their lives.” She recently completed a mural on the Paseo Boricua at 2459 W. Division on the back wall of the West Town Bike Shop. She expects to complete an After School Matters Mural Minded mural in the Kelvyn Park District in Hermosa by August 6th.

Josué Pellotis a sculptor, who considers even his work in other mediums to be extensions of his sculpture practice and shows regularly in Chicago, Puerto Rico and the UK. His work is anything but traditional, however, as he often utilizes the language and form of everyday life to critical and humorous effect. He once installed neon light pieces in the window of La Municipal Supermarket (2559 W. Division) just in time for the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Easily mistaken for alcohol advertisements, the pieces actually depicted moments from the European colonization of the Americas, suggestively reminding onlookers of the racism and oppression of their not-so-distant past. He has also infiltrated a “Boricua toy” vending machine in Humboldt Park, purchasing it, toys and all, from the distributor and adding renditions of himself and his family to the navel-baring female and paint gun-toting male figurines sold within for fifty cents. He currently has a solo exhibition, Pellot Gonzalez Rios, at the Hyde Park Art Center that is up through August 22nd, the content of which focuses on his family and childhood in Puerto Rico. He recently took his first venture into filmmaking, making I’m the Queenwith colleague Henrique Cirne-Lima, a documentary about a 2009 beauty pageant for Puerto Rican, transgendered youth from Paseo Boricua. The film will screen at the Hyde Park Art Center Saturday August 14th.

Reynaldo Rodriguez, La Hija de Ochum

Reynaldo “Guaracibo” Rodriguezis a self-trained artist, who has a passion for color pencil drawing, acrylic paint on canvas, mixed-media work and murals. His artwork takes his family and Puerto Rican heritage as the central motif if representation. He says of his pieces, “They are the results of my aesthetic and intellectual development, and belong to different stages and states of mind. They are my reflections, my creations. I always paint for myself and for anyone who may enjoy what I paint. All the projects that I work on, they have to relate to me.” In scrolling through images of his work online this becomes apparent. All are of incredibly intimate subject matter—his wife, seated with a peacock on her shoulder in front of a full moon, a man in chains kissing the belly of a pregnant woman, a middle-aged man daydreaming about palm trees and waterfalls, a couple dancing on a beach—and though most appear to be in the present day a good number recall Puerto Rico’s history: indigenous populations, the Conquistadors, slavery. Rodriguez, thus, melds his personal present with his collective past, making images that are at once both insular and relatable.

Francisco Rosado, Chicagolicious

Francisco Rosadocame from Puerto Rico to visit an old friend living in Chicago eight years ago. That friend is now his wife and the mother of his children. Rosado had began his work as a visual artist designing posters in the 90s for his punk bands Recazo Social and Lopodrido, and his most recent work continues to demonstrate an interest in punk music philosophies and graphic design.  He says, “I’m an internationalist by principle, but growing up in the Puerto Rican status quo certainly influenced my world view. The most notable are the quest for freedom, the need for inclusion, the importance of coexistence and the solidarity spirit I learned in Puerto Rico inform my work more conceptually than with the representation of a reduced specific subject matter.” He was part of the conceptualization process, as well as one of the chosen artists to participate in the School Engagement Initiative, which places community artists at local schools towards the creation of integrated arts curriculum-based projects that address the learning needs of students as well as issues of community development. He did so, feeling that as a product of the public education system in Puerto Rico with limited exposure to art, he could relate to Chicago’s inner city youth, who face a similar situation.

Edra Soto, The Chacon-Soto Show

Edra Soto moved to Chicago from San Juan ten years ago to get her MFA in painting at SAIC. She is interested in creating and promoting non-commercial art and often utilizes a wide-range of materials in her complex installation pieces. Two years ago, she began exploring explicit media images of Latinas. Her work in this area addresses the concern that the sexual agency of Latinas in visual culture has barely progressed and possibly even regressed in the last forty years. In her 12×12 piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art last summer, The Chacon-Soto Show, she honed in on Iris Chacon, a pioneer of the vendetta movement in Puerto Rico in the 1970s and pop culture icon, in order to question the fascination of Latinas with self-exposure and examine the way in which Latino culture is portrayed in the mainstream. She is currently working on a new exhibition, Homily, which will open on September 24th at Ebersmoore on Morgan Street in the west loop.

Brenda Torres, Figueroa La Femme Qui N'Existe Pas

Brenda Torresis a SAIC-educated performance artist, who has been working between Puerto Rico and Chicago as an artist, curator and educator for the last ten years. She has taught at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School since 2008 and in recent years has achieved notoriety for being the youngest contemporary art curator working at a museum in Puerto Rico. She sees all of this work, however, as part of her greater body of performance art. “I use ‘performance art’ as the contrivance that encloses my entire body of work,” she says. “I use performance art as a model in my curatorial practice which pays close attention to those works that explore human behavior. As a result, my educational approach involves finding meaningful tools and resources to challenge the social predicaments that historically had been in charge of marginalizing people in society.” She has been actively involved with Chicago’s Puerto Rican arts community in myriad ways, including the creation of murals with ex-political prisoners, performance workshops for the peers at Vida/SIDA, community lectures with IPRAC, exhibitions at local galleries, and the organization of the Puerto Rican Day Parade and Haunted Paseo Boricua. She does so, because she genuinely believes she can help the community grow through her artwork, programming and education.

Footnote: Pedro Velez, one of Chicago’s top critics, and writer for Artnet Magazine, suggested adding José Lerma and Rafael Franco Steeves.