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A Separate Peace

Pilsen art walk organizers find their outreach exceeds their grasp.

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By Jeff Huebner

Sue Draftz says she "started a revolution" when she took over organizing the Pilsen East Artists' Open House in 1995, the 25th anniversary of the September studio tour. She says she and other volunteers tried to bridge the gap between East Pilsen artists, who are predominantly white, and Pilsen artists, who are predominantly Mexican-American. "[Pilsen's Mexican-American] artists have been told in the past that they weren't allowed to participate," claims Draftz, a photographer and 13-year East Pilsen resident. "It didn't make any sense to me to exclude them. But I always indicated on my invitations that the open house was open to all Pilsen artists. It was a big deal that some Mexican artists were willing to participate. I wanted the event to be a celebration of both art communities coming together."

But this year "east," which was dropped the two years Draftz organized the event, is back in the title, and Draftz won't be running the show. She believes the organizing committee dropped her because the members didn't appreciate her attempts to reach out across the ethnic divide.

Not true, says the committee's chairperson, Marion Brown, a computer-graphics artist who lives in East Pilsen. "Pilsen is too big of an area to organize an area-wide event. Everyone appreciated Sue's efforts to include nonwhite artists, but it became about that and not about organizing an art event. Except for a couple of people, I didn't see the discrimination that Sue saw. I think she was so involved in focusing on Mexican artists that she lost sight of [the open house]. We're trying to put the focus back on involving all artists in the community. It'll have a different flavor."

The open house was started in 1970 by artists who lived in several East Pilsen buildings owned by John and Ann Podmajersky. A couple of years later the Podmajerskys took over running it themselves. "It's been an ongoing vision of my husband's," says Ann. "We wanted to give artists the opportunity to show their work, and to give the public the opportunity to come and see how artists live and work." The Podmajerskys, who say they rent 90 percent of their units to artists--Draftz began living in one of their buildings in 1984--relinquished direct control of the open house several years ago, though they continue to sponsor it, paying for, among other things, the liability insurance.

At the center of this year's event will be the former Salvation Army thrift store at 1826 S. Halsted, which the Podmajerskys own. Twenty-five artists will display their work there from noon to dusk this Saturday and Sunday. Another 40 to 50 neighborhood artists will open their studios. (Last year 70 did.)

Participation in the open house isn't limited to Podmajersky tenants. Any East Pilsen artist who pays an entry fee or donates time to the organization can display work at the Salvation Army space or have a studio marked on the map. And some of the artists will be Latino. First-time exhibitor Juan Angel Chavez, a painter and assemblage artist, will be showing his work in the Salvation Army space as well as at his studio, which is near 18th and Canal. "I see it as an opportunity to promote myself and hopefully make some money," says Chavez, a four-year Pilsen resident who moved to East Pilsen, the "other side of the tracks," a year ago.

Marion Brown also points out that Pilsen artist Alejandro Romero designed the open-house poster and that press releases were bilingual. And Prospectus gallery, a Latino arts venue at 18th and Racine, is an open-house sponsor. She does say some of this year's organizers "got burned out chasing after some artists who did not want to be involved. But I don't think anything we've done has been discriminatory. Everyone I've spoken with has wanted inclusion. But we're not a political organization. This is not about politics."

Sue Draftz, who has had her work in some of the open houses, says the issue was never politics. She says she was just trying to be a "good neighbor" when she organized the 1995 open house. "When I volunteered I didn't know that participating in the open house was viewed by many Mexican artists as improper." Dismayed, she began "connecting with Mexican artists in the community. I felt there was so much potential in the exchange of culture and artistic technique and that we could all benefit from having so many diverse artists as neighbors."

By the spring of 1995 Draftz came up with a list of 350 people to whom she mailed a monthly letter about how the open house would be run. That summer the one-page sheet turned into the "Pilsen Artists' Connection Newsletter," written solely by Draftz; it included a comprehensive calendar of art events throughout Pilsen.

Draftz says she gathered 60 volunteers to help her run the event. "It was incredibly time-consuming. I busted my butt to make it something we could all be proud of. There were artists who participated in the open house for the first time--because the Mexican community was included." The studio map Draftz produced included the locations of murals, galleries, and other Pilsen art landmarks. She also organized an exhibit of work by neighborhood Latino artists at the P.E.A.C.E. gallery, at 18th and Halsted.

The next year, Draftz says, the open house was better organized and she needed fewer volunteers. She didn't put together another art exhibit at P.E.A.C.E., because "some people were angry that I'd invited Latino artists." Instead she had a Friday-night gallery walk that included such Pilsen venues as Prospectus and Casa de Arte y Cultura Calles y Sue–os. That summer Exito, the Tribune Company's Spanish-language weekly, ran an article on her efforts.

Draftz says, "More artists participated, and the open house was better." But she says it was still hard to persuade Pilsen artists and venues to be a part of the tour. "I didn't get as many Mexican artists as I wanted--many were skeptical. They were very reluctant to participate in anything having to do with East Pilsen."

Some Latino artists have a different take on her efforts. "I respect Sue, and we appreciate her support," says one Latino artist whose space was on the map last year but isn't on it this year. "She has very good intentions in terms of fusing the two groups here--the Latinos on one side and the Anglos on the other. But she's naive about politics in Pilsen. She worked hard but not very successfully and hasn't received a lot of support from either side. Good intentions are not enough when you don't understand the politics and history. I don't think she understands quite well how [participating] could be harmful to us."

Roberto Valadez, a painter whose Galeria Diez y Ocho (now closed) was on last year's studio map, says "East Pilsen has been there for years, and nobody ever made a movement this way--and that was great. We know she was well-intentioned, but we never felt quite a part of it."

Valadez recalls being amused by early issues of the "Pilsen Artists' Connection Newsletter," though he thinks they got better. "I remember one article where she was saying how surprised she was to learn that there were artists living and working in obscure, out-of-the-way places like Pilsen. But we're not in an obscure, out-of-the-way place. We're in Pilsen--we're in the middle of it. We've always considered East Pilsen to be at the other end."

Another Mexican-American artist in Pilsen is more blunt. "The open house has absolutely nothing to do with art. It's only so people can come see big spaces and see how cheap they are. It's very commercial, very empty, and says nothing. I also have a problem with people who take the John Wayne attitude that they're going to save the natives."

Draftz says that at an organizing meeting earlier this year she told the committee she wanted to "ease out" of organizing the event by herself. She said she was starting work on a computer-graphics degree at the School of the Art Institute. She said she had also had several operations on her spine over the years and was still suffering from back spasms that kept her on disability.

Draftz also told the committee that she wanted the organizers to carry on some of the policies she'd established. "I felt that we needed it to run in a certain way instead of reinventing the wheel every year."

Draftz says the committee wasn't interested. "I was told that my involvement was not wanted. I was accused of using the open house as a vehicle for promoting my own agenda. It absolutely broke my heart." But she's quick to add that the actions of the committee don't reflect the attitudes of the entire East Pilsen artists community. "It was only a small group of people that took control. A lot of East Pilsen artists didn't even know about what was happening at the meetings. I was disappointed in my neighbors who were aware of what was going on for allowing it to be so exclusive when I'd demonstrated it didn't have to be. But this year they're doing it the way the Podmajerskys insist they do it."

"I've tried to keep my nose out this year," says Ann Podmajersky. But she did have a few requests. "I told [Marion Brown] I would not deal with Sue Draftz. She tried to do something good, and I have no hard feelings. But there had been a lack of communication in the past. A lot of other people were upset." Podmajersky said her decision had nothing to do with the fact that Draftz had got behind on her rent or that in August Draftz had been threatened with eviction. (Draftz quickly decided to move out of what she calls "Podville" and now lives in Pilsen.)

"This is not something we do for the entire city," Podmajersky went on, "but something we do for the people who rent from us. It's a private little thing. I can't have an art fair for the entire community on my property. I can't do a thing like Around the Coyote and have 10,000 people here. This is my property. I have all the liability and responsibility to people who live here as well as to the public. I'm not an unreasonable person, and I certainly felt I had the right to do that [make requests]." She adds, "I don't have any issues with Mexicans in this community."

"I took the control away from them [the Podmajerskys], and of course they didn't like that at all," says Draftz. "I worked my butt off for my reputation, and I think they made every effort to destroy my credibility with my neighbors. Maybe I set my goals too high, but I'm glad I did. One of the reasons I moved is to be where I could continue building a bridge from west to east and have relationships with artists on both sides. If I wanted to live in a homogeneous community I'd live in the suburbs." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sue Draftz, center, and former open house participants Eleazer Delgado and Sylvia Lanza photo by Nathan Mandell; Former Salvation Army store at 1826 S. Halsted photo by Bill Stamets.

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