Artist Insights: Juan Angel Chávez


Juan Angel Chávez is a passionate and active member of Chicago’s art community.  The artist was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and currently lives and works in Chicago where he teaches at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). He has exhibited his work internationally and has been recognized with numerous prestigious awards from notable organizations including the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and 3Arts, just to name a few.   

Tell me about where you’re from and your transition to Chicago.

I’m originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, and I moved to Chicago when I was 13 years old. At first I suffered from severe culture shock. I was in 7th grade, and I didn’t speak English.  I came from a place where the emphasis was on farming and ranching, and my school’s agricultural curriculum focused on breeding cattle and growing apples. At first, Chicago was suffocating, and I wanted to run back to splicing fruit trees and vaccinating cattle.

After a year of living in Uptown/Andersonville, I adapted and gained confidence as I explored the city. When some of my neighbors started to get involved with the Latin Kings, at my mom’s first opportunity she enrolled me in art classes. She encouraged me to apply my talents through a constructive form, and I owe a lot to her and the teachers she roped into her art class conspiracy.

The real assimilation into Chicago culture happened when I discovered skateboarding, because it gave me space and freedom. It made me think of the urban space as a landscape and not confinement. I’ve grown with the city and now feel like I’m a part of Chicago. I go back to Chihuahua quite often, and I love going there, but after a few months, I’m ready to feel the energy of the city again.

Please discuss your visual arts studies and how you’ve honed your practice and technique over the years.

My art studies are a bit complex. I think my mother had a lot to do with that because, aside from enrolling me in art classes, she had my high school teachers register me for SAIC’s early college programs as well. I attended SAIC for my undergrad on a scholarship, but my career was short lived when I was asked to leave the school. I had an issue with writing in English, and my scholarship was revoked.

I decided to get involved in as many positive and creative endeavors as possible. I started working with the National Museum of Mexican Art, and I got involved with community public art. I took skateboarding more seriously and began to hang out with DJs, graphic designers, graffiti writers, and rave promoters. I’m partly SAIC schooled and partly street schooled. 

How and when did you first start exhibiting?

In 2001 I was very involved in public art. I was painting murals and mosaics in schools, and I didn’t really see the value of exhibiting my work. I started putting up relief sculptures on boarded up buildings all over the city to try and change the idea of advertising space with something more whimsical. I didn’t have a goal with that series - it was just fun! Shortly after, I was nominated for the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation’s Individual Artist Award, and I won it. That really changed my perspective and marked the direction of my work.

Your mixed media art has many components. I particularly enjoy the carpentry elements in your large wooden pieces. Talk about the significance of the materials you use – what are you drawn to working with, and why?

I view the use of materials and objects as contemporary artifacts ingrained in the quest for survival, exploration and establishment. Carpentry to me is not just construction; it represents components of methods or processes that signify shelter and navigation in the establishment for survival. It is really interesting for me to see materials that reveal an essence of history in their texture and shape. 

Tell me about your studio practice.

My two kids take a lot of my time, so I work out of my home studio at night. At first it was hard to adapt to working at home, but I’ve made some interesting changes and this new process has made me think in more detail about my projects. I make everything small scale now and that helps with materials, budget, labor, space – plus I don’t get stuck with storage issues.  

Chicago’s public art is one of my favorite things about this city. You have work on view at various CTA stations as a part of the city’s public art initiative. How do you feel about having work displayed at these locations? 

I’m a big fan of the public art in Chicago as well, and I’m honored to be a part of the city’s collection. The work I’ve done for the CTA has immortalized my art in the city - I love that!  I would love the opportunity to make another public art piece, and I still think about making more public art, but I don’t know how my new ideas would apply. New work would be very different than VIDA SIMPLE at the pink line, for example.

You are one of many commissioned artists involved in the Hyde Park Art Center’s Not Just Another Pretty Face program. (This year’s show runs thru March 30, 2014.) Would you share comments on the program? 

I’ve done NJAPF three times; it’s been lots of fun and great works have come out of it. Cultivating relationships between artists and patrons is an excellent idea. HPAC is not afraid to try new things and neither are their NJAPF patrons. It’s very liberating to try and reinvent the wheel when considering portraits.

Are you in the middle of any big projects? 

I’m gearing up for larger projects this spring and summer, but this winter I’m trying to focus on the creation of smaller works with a new direction. I’ve always done very large projects that have an immediate result, but I want to try and focus on pieces that take longer to make. 

How do you see Chicago’s art community?

Chicago is a very vibrant city, and I love being a part of its art community. Emerging artists are making really inspiring and amazing work, and the creative energy in this city is more intense because of that; it keeps me on my toes.