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South Chicago, East Side

Roman Villarreal Has Dedicated His Life To Public Art. Now, He’s Looking To Bring More Work To His South Side Neighborhood

Roman Villarreal is trying something new — asking neighbors to fund projects in South Chicago.

Roman Villarreal in his Nine 3 art studio at the southeast corner of Commercial Avenue and South Chicago Avenue.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
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SOUTH CHICAGO — Hopping off the Metra at 93rd Street/South Chicago, one of the first things you may see is a vibrant sculpture that honors the neighborhood and the families of steelworkers who once lived there. 

Now the artist behind the piece is fundraising to create more art for South Chicago’s open spaces.

Roman Villarreal, a 70-year-old sculptor and painter, has created countless works for the public. Villarreal is behind a lakeside mermaid whose origins remained a mystery for more than a decade, a tribute to Southeast Side laborers in Steelworkers Park and a sculpture to be completed by next week at Big Marsh Park, to name a few.

After decades working across the city, Villarreal is now focusing his efforts on his home neighborhood: South Chicago. His fundraiser will pay for a scissor lift, paint and other materials required to do large, professional-quality street art.

Small murals require more than $100 in paint, and larger ones like those he has planned for South Chicago can run $1,000 “before you even get started” painting, Villarreal said.

“You’ve gotta clean the wall, prime it, then get to the painting and put a protective coating on it,” Villarreal said. “The works that we’re going to propose in the near future, they’re going to be there for the long term.”

To kick off the fundraiser, Villarreal donated his sculpture, “Homenaje a Nuestras Familias de Acero,” or “Homage to Our Steel Families,” to the neighborhood.

It’s adjacent to a massive mural on the side of South Chicago’s Mexican American social club at 3101 E. 92nd St., near the Metra station.

The fundraiser has started off slowly, attracting only six donors in two weeks. Villarreal celebrates the small individual donations of $10 or less, saying “it’s an honor” residents would give any amount of disposable income to community art.

The sculpture serves as a sort of example for the fundraiser, Villarreal said. He wanted to show neighbors what they can expect from his public art before asking them to fund future projects.

“Homenaje a Nuestras Familias de Acero” was donated “just to get more of a bond with our community,” he said. With future projects, neighbors “can say, ‘We bought this for our community and I chipped in.’ There’s a pride in that.”

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Villarreal donated “Homenaje a Nuestras Familias de Acero” for display near the 93rd Street/South Chicago Metra Station. The tribute to South Chicago steelworkers and their families is an example of his “collage” style of sculpting.

Villarreal and several other artists operating out of his Nine 3 art studio are in the process of scouting locations for future works. Four sites presenting various challenges have caught their attention so far.

A drab, windowless wall at 9206–9214 S. Commercial Ave. and an old plumbing advertisement across the street from Nine 3 are easy enough surfaces to paint if the building owners are interested, Villarreal said.

The studio has also prepared designs for a portion of the half-mile-long ore walls at the U.S. Steel’s former South Works site, a part of which was reserved for Steelworkers Park.

But Villarreal’s loftiest and perhaps most visible target — two massive silos at an industrial site behind Calumet Fisheries — will require significant planning and funding, and a worthy pitch to the site’s owners.

“It’s just a matter of designing and sponsorship and it will happen,” he said.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
The advertisement on the side of South Chicago Plumbing and Heating Supply, 9275 S. South Chicago Ave., that Villarreal has his eye on.

Maria Villarreal, who celebrated 50 years of marriage with Roman in April, is an established quilter, seamstress and mosaicist who likes to do her own thing when it comes to her creativity.

“I gotta give the guy some space. I can’t hang with him,” she said.

A longtime teacher with South Chicago nonprofit SkyART and Chicago Public Schools’ Gallery 37, Maria Villarreal doesn’t plan on using the fundraiser for her own efforts.

Even if she’s not planning to be actively involved, Maria Villarreal said she supports the fundraiser and “anything [Roman] wants to do” to develop South Chicago’s art scene.

Roman doesn’t just focus on his own work at Nine 3. He also collaborates with younger in-house artists like Arron Cortez and Matt “Shapeless” Rodriguez, and he allows local street artists to practice on a triangular installation in the studio’s yard.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Detail of a practice wall in the yard at the Nine 3 studio. Street artists from the neighborhood use the wall with permission from Villarreal.

It’s necessary work, Maria Villarreal said, because “too many artists” are reluctant to work on the South Side or mentor neighborhood creatives on how to navigate the art world.

All South Chicago projects bankrolled by the fundraiser will include “any number of artists” Roman Villarreal has mentored or collaborated with, he said.

Priority will be given to neighborhood artists like those at Nine 3, followed by those in his “extensive collection of friends” across the city and in Northwest Indiana.

One of Villarreal’s closest mentees and collaborators is Pilsen-based Indigenous artist Traz Juarez, who called Villarreal “a patron and a big brother.”

In-person showings at Villarreal’s gallery — Under the Bridge, 10052 S. Ewing Ave. — are out of the question for now, so Juarez plans to use interior design software to create a 360-degree virtual gallery for the studio.

The virtual gallery is one of the public projects the fundraiser will support if the studio raises enough money, allowing neighbors to browse the artists’ work in detail and encouraging sales through the coronavirus pandemic.

Juarez wants the project to be more interactive than a static online gallery or a Zoom show. “Just the standard, ‘click on here’ — that’s cataloguing, that’s Amazon,” Juarez said.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Original artworks from Roman Villarreal, Traz Juarez and other Nine 3 artists adorn the studio’s exterior.

Nine 3 has been a “haven” for Juarez during the pandemic, serving as a place for him to continue creating and experimenting even as his professional work has been impacted by the virus.

Juarez is a designer who worked on shows — including “Station Eleven” and “Fargo” — that were filming in Chicago before studios suspended work. With productions shut down, he’s used the South Chicago studio as his artistic release.

“I had a gallery in Pilsen, but I couldn’t spray paint, so I was like a chef with no kitchen,” Juarez said. “It didn’t serve its purpose for me, where [Nine 3] does.”

By encouraging investment in area creatives, Villarreal hopes to prove to budding artists there’s a market for their talents in South Chicago and provide residents with a direct role in beautifying the neighborhood.

It’s the same goal he’s had since Nine 3’s founding last year.

“The way the world is right now, we need this certain unity of the community and the arts,” he said. “With the arts, there’s no division.”

You can donate to Villarreal’s GoFundMe here.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Dozens of sculptures on shelves around Nine 3 show the wide range of styles expressed in Villarreal’s work.

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