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Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Town

Helendora Samuels Picture Framing, One Of Few Black-Owned Shops In Wicker Park, Struggling During Pandemic

Wicker Park has few Black-owned businesses. With neighbors' support, framing experts Sylvester "Tommy" and Helendora Samuels hope to stay.

The Rev. Sylvester "Tommy" Samuels and Helendora Samuels inside their custom framing shop in Wicker Park.
Hannah Alani / Block Club Chicago
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WICKER PARK — When customers walk into Helendora Samuels Picture Framing, Inc. they are greeted with the kind of framing shop Sylvester “Tommy” Samuels grew up in. 

Scraps of materials are scattered atop tables where orders sit, there are chevron-shaped frame samples mounted in every direction and four decades’ worth of framed letters and accolades are displayed on fuchsia and periwinkle walls.

“We have what you call an old time ma-and-pa frame shop,” Samuels said. “We try to get you the best price. I’m the guy, if you come in here and say, ‘This is all the money I got,’ I’m gonna try to do something for you.” 

Credit: Hannah Alani / Block Club Chicago
The Rev. Sylvester “Tommy” Samuels works on a framed map inside his custom framing shop in Wicker Park.

Tommy and his wife, Helendora Samuels, opened their Wicker Park shop at 1736 W. North Ave. six years ago, but he’s done framing in Chicago much longer than that.

With 40 years of experience, Tommy Samuels’ work can be found all over Chicagoland, from the dorms of Northwestern University to the White Sox stadium to the newly opened Hyatt Place hotel.

Recently, however, orders have slowed. As one of the few Black-owned businesses in Wicker Park, the Samuelses hope they can ride out the coronavirus pandemic and stay in the neighborhood they’ve grown to love. 

“Being here for six years means a lot,” Tommy Samuels said. “A lot of companies, they come and they go. For us to be Black. … We care about all people. The relationship we have with the majority of our customers is just awesome.”

Credit: Hannah Alani / Block Club Chicago
Rev. Sylvester “Tommy” Samuels and Helendora Samuels outside their custom framing shop in Wicker Park.

Framing Chicago’s Celebrities — And Neighbors  

Tommy Samuels lived in Roseland on the Far South Side before settling in Oak Park.

He learned the trade of framing from his father, and he helped his father and brother in the family business from the time he was 17.

In 1980, Samuels founded his first business. He completed his first frame job for the Chicago Tribune atop a TV tray in his mother’s basement.

Credit: Tommy and Helendora Samuels / Provided
Rev. Sylvester “Tommy” Samuels has more than 40 years of experience in the custom framing industry.

Samuels went on to work with the Chicago Bulls, framing for the United Center. He was hired by Juanita Jordan, then the wife of Michael Jordan, to create work for the basketball star’s Highland Park home.

Samuels’ work can be seen inside Guaranteed Rate Field, McCormick Place Hyatt Hotel and the Mag Mile Marriott. 

His work is also inside countless Chicago homes, encasing childhood photographs, sports jerseys, high-end artwork — anything worth framing. Samuels said he believes framing is “more than just putting something in a frame:” It’s a craft.

Credit: Hannah Alani / Block Club Chicago
Rev. Sylvester “Tommy” Samuels holds a letter from the Chicago Bulls inside his custom framing shop in Wicker Park.

Helendora Samuels, an Austin native, learned the craft from her husband after they married in 2011.

Like her husband, Helendora Samuels loves seeing the faces of customers after providing a frame job. She’s learned how to frame scarves, Persian rugs, dart boards and more. One of her favorite jobs was framing a traditional beaded Nigerian celebration throw. 

“Our motto is, ‘You name it, we frame it,’” she said. “The gifts are in our hearts and in our hands. And our eyes, because you got to have the vision of what we’re doing.” 

Wicker Park neighbor Leah Root said she’s hired the Samuelses for at least 15 frame jobs. The craftsmanship is worth every penny, she said. 

“When I say he’s truly an artist, he really is,” Root said. “He literally takes time, goes through the matting, the frame. Picks out the colors from the painting or picture, makes it pop. … It’s like an art, to see a picture and know how to do it.” 

Credit: Tommy and Helendora Samuels / Provided
A beaded Nigerian celebration throw was framed at Helendora Samuels Picture Framing, Inc., in Wicker Park.
Credit: Tommy and Helendora Samuels / Provided
Helendora Samuels Picture Framing, Inc., in Wicker Park.
Credit: Hannah Alani / Block Club Chicago
Helendora Samuels holds a framed scarf inside her custom framing shop in Wicker Park.

While business picked up at the start of the pandemic, it’s slowed considerably as the summer has progressed. The framing business naturally comes in spurts, they said, but in recent years the couple has gone as long as three months without orders.

RELATED: Here’s How To Support Black-Owned Businesses In Wicker Park, Bucktown And West Town

The Samuelses aren’t sure if they will see the “boost” many neighboring Black-owned businesses experienced recently.

“We need the business, we need the support, we need people to know we’re here,” he said. “We’re reputable, qualified. We have experience. I know what not to do. When you know that, that’s when you’re doing a good job.”

Philanthropy, Fellowship, Community

In addition to framing, the Wicker Park storefront is home to a church headed by Rev. Tommy Samuels, as well as philanthropic efforts linking Wicker Park and Austin.  

Tommy Samuels founded the Righteous Way of Living Ministries in 2015. Before the pandemic, the church’s members met for Tuesday bible study and Sunday services. Now, these services are virtual. 

Credit: Tommy and Helendora Samuels / Provided
The Righteous Way of Living Ministries gathers inside Helendora Samuels Picture Framing, Inc., in Wicker Park.

Through her organization, Stepping Out In Faith/I AM Austin, Helendora Samuels teaches the trades of custom framing and cosmetology to children.

She organizes annual toy, coat and boot drives. This year she’ll also collect donations for children whose families couldn’t receive unemployment benefits or other aid. 

On Friday nights, the couple invites children from the West Side to their framing shop for art lessons. 

The art workshops were put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic but will resume the first Friday of August. Wicker Park children are encouraged to participate, Helendora Samuels said. 

Credit: Tommy and Helendora Samuels / Provided
A toy drive through Stepping Out In Faith / I AM Austin.
Credit: Tommy and Helendora Samuels / Provided
“Friday Nights” youth art workshop at Helendora Samuels Picture Framing, Inc., in Wicker Park.

Helendora Samuels hopes her efforts will create a “bridge” between Wicker Park and Austin, but to keep their efforts going, the Samuelses say they need help with funding and writing proposals for grants. 

They’re also planning a community march for racial justice and against violence with some help from the Wicker Park Committee.

To learn more about the Samuelses framing business, email samuelsframegraphicsstudio@gmail.com. Place an order by calling 312-770-0713.

After Block Club published this story, a reader established a GoFundMe to help support the business. You can find the fundraiser here.

Credit: Tommy and Helendora Samuels / Provided
“Friday Nights” youth art workshop at Helendora Samuels Picture Framing, Inc., in Wicker Park.
Credit: Tommy and Helendora Samuels / Provided
The Rev. Sylvester “Tommy” Samuels during a march in Chicago.

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