Roberto Lopez interview

by Vittorio Carli

Roberto Lopez is the owner and curator of the Roberto Lopez Gallery located in the Flat Iron Building at 1579 N. Milwaukee Avenue. He has exhibits every year in the Around the Coyote Festival which takes place in September. In addition, his work is featured in the First Fridays exhibits in which Flat Iron Building artists open their studios to the public on the first Friday of every month. He also is starting an artist colony/cultural exchange program in Puerto Vallarta.

His new on-going exhibit, "Chronicles of Wicker Park" tells the story of his neighborhood. Wicker Park started out as a multi-ethnic working class neighborhood. It later became a cutting edge artist community, which achieved national exposure. More recently, many of the artists moved out because of the high rent. Now, it's a heavily gentrified yuppie haven complete with a Starbucks. The chronicles exhibit will feature photos and other works by Roberto and other artists which capture the immense changes that occurred in his community.

Carli-Can you tell me anything about your early life?

Lopez-I'm from Mexico City. I was born and raised there. I went to Chicago when I was 21. That was 23 years ago.

Carli-What was your family life like in Mexico?

Lopez-In the late '50s early '60s, we used to have a business delivering ice. It was challenging because if he did not deliver the ice fast it would melt into water. My father died and I later left the business because it was too cold.

Carli-How did you first get interested in art?

Lopez-It was through my father. He was a guitar player. He wasn't a pro but he enjoyed playing. At one point he became blind. Instead of taking pictures or drawing he played and told stories about his life.

Carli-What were the stories about?

Lopez-About growing up in Central Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. He told me about the fighting that took place, the hunger he experienced, and horror of war that he went through. Later on, we moved to Mexico City.

Carli-How did you first get interested in photography?

Lopez-I got interested in photography many years later. I wanted to take pictures but I never had enough money to buy a camera. One day I lent money to a friend of mine. He said I don't have the money to pay you back, but I have this camera I can give you. When I first moved to Wicker Park, I used to sit down walk around and ask people questions in the neighborhood. I would ask different artists for hints on how to load the camera and how to make it work. I made a lot of mistakes and to this day I keep the mistakes in my file. I later went to school to study art. I learned about photography and the business of art. I leaned what it takes.

Carli-How did you support yourself?

Lopez-I used to do all kinds of things. I used to be the head of the Ruiz-Valdez Cultural Center. Down the street on Milwaukee Avenue, I went to school and become an art therapist. I taught the children of alcoholics how to make art. I didn't like the bureaucracy of the job, so I decided to become an artist. In order to do that I had to scrub floors and clean windows and toilets. I had to do a number of jobs to support myself.

Carli-What was your preferred medium for self-expression?

Lopez-Black and white photography.

Carli-Who were some of the people who helped you get started and who were some of the famous people you encountered in the early days of Wicker Park?

Lopez-I've been here many years. I arrived here in 1971. I remember people's last names, For instance, there was a guy named Smith; I talked to him about politics and culture. He lived on top of the Flat Iron Building. He was the first person who gave me ideas on how to work with the camera. At one point I even met the famous writer Nelson Algren, but to me, he was an old man and represented to old stuff. I was concerned with the future and I thought I could create something better then him (hahah). So at that point I just didn't want to deal with the past. There were many good artists here such as Eddie Bachowski. He was a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that went to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He lost his hand over there. We used to get together. We talked about the Spanish Civil War, politics, art and women. One day I was very sad because I learned that he jumped in front of the train at the North Avenue and Clybourn Station.

Carli-Do you know why he did it?

Lopez-Well, he was getting old and he was depressed. He did not have enough money to support his family, and he wanted to do some good for humanity. He got depressed because he could not do all those things that he wanted to do.

Cortez-Were there any photographers that had a big impact on your work?

Lopez-At first ,I studied photography on my own. I was self-taught. I would go to the old Maxwell Street Flea Market. I would take pictures of the vendors and the people who walked around. I took lots of pictures in Wicker Park too. I wanted to capture the people, buildings and events. I photographed many Wicker Park weddings and baptisms. I called myself an "affordable photographer." I would just bill people for the film. It was a very difficult because I often had to decide whether to eat or pay for film. It was difficult but it was also very rewarding.

Carli-Can you tell me about your Around the Coyote pieces and some of your more permanent work?

Lopez-I'm going to do a series of photography exhibits called the Chronicles of Wicker Park. It will include photos tell stories that will deal with the events and changes in the neighborhood. The changes involving real estate, businesses, and the people who went crazy and the ones made it big. The people who moved out or moved back into the neighborhood and the ones who went bankrupt.

Carli-Remember Milwaukee Joe? He was the guy who always went around with puppets. I heard he was put in some kind of a home.

Lopez-Yes, there are many people from here who were put in institutions. Jimmy Fitzgerald was born and raised in Wicker Park. At one point, his father died of a heart attack on the corner or Milwaukee, North and Damen when Jimmy was a kid. Jimmy wants to stay here and die here. My friend, Jimmy, goes to that corner every morning so that he can join his father and mother who died 40 years ago. So he's a real character. He had a lot of stories and a great sense of humor and now he's also a painter. He paints people he sees on television, and he is going to be part of the Chronicles of Wicker Park exhibit.

Carli-Will your wife, Virginia Boyle be helping you with the exhibit?

Lopez-Yes she is going to help me get organized. She is very organized, whereas I tend to stay in the moment. She is going to help me select items, writing things for it and generally putting it together.

Carli-What else will be in the exhibit?

Lopez-I'm making a selection of items. At one point I am going to do an exhibit on the Rolling Stones. They came to Wicker Park five or six years ago. They performed at the Double Door. That morning I saw a sign in front of that place that said Rolling Stones Tonight Only Seven Dollars. I thought Rolling Stones? That must be a broadcast. I saw a bunch of people running around and I asked a guy what's going on? He replied "don't you know?" The Rolling Stones are coming here tonight and they are going to perform for seven dollars.

Carli-I was here that night and I couldn't find parking.

Lopez-I didn't go see them. I thought Rolling Stones, you are going to stay in the past. But then I made videotape from my window. My window was right across from the Double Door. I made videos of the people waiting, the Rolling Stones arriving, and the police trying to control the crowds.

Carli-What was it like?

Lopez-A carnival like atmosphere. Everyone wanted to see them and people were yelling "Rolling Stones, we love you!" There was a crowd of 600 -700 people. So the police had to call the Monty Police to have them come to help keep things in order.

Carli- Are you going to show the videos in the Chronicles?

Lopez-Yes, I am going to show the videotape and some parts of newscasts from different stations that broadcast the actual event.

Carli-Are you going to anything on "The Real World" and when they filmed in Wicker Park?

Lopez-I wasn't into that, but many people protested the show. I didn't pay attention and the show just came and went.

Carli-What other stories will be featured in the exhibit?

Lopez-I met an old lady that waited around the corner of North Avenue and Damen. I met her for coffee. I saw her almost every day. She told me stories about her childhood in the Ukraine and she had no friends and family, here. She really treasured my friendship. She told me her name was Tanya. Her whole family in the Ukraine had been killed by the Nazis and she never got over it. She spent her life working in Chicago. She became old and sick. Then one day she never came back, and I don't know what happened to her. I have pictures of her. In all I have around 7,000. Some of the pictures are good and some are bad. But they give a historical perspective on Wicker Park.

For more info call Roberto Lopez or Virginia Boyle 773-227-6221 or e-mail them at

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Photography by Richard Wilson