Visitors to “Belizean Roots, Westside Raised,” a 2020 exhibition of work by Alexie Young at Art West. Credit: Courtesy of Art West

There’s a painting hanging on the wall at Art West, an art space on the west side. The painting depicts a woman with an afro, while fake plants and ivies hang from the walls to help bring the exhibit alive. Inside her hair, butterflies point their wings toward the sky as they take flight within the two-dimensional art. The butterflies are real, dried and mounted to the painting. It’s a colorful work symbolizing regrowth and the healing power of nature. Alexy Irving, the artist behind the “Black Plant-It” exhibit, is interested in highlighting these kinds of transformations with her art in the same way that Art West works to inspire, enliven, and cultivate a thriving art scene on the west side.  

“‘Black Plant-It’ included multiple artists and bringing everyone’s art together and telling one story by arranging art on walls that were once blank was inspiring,” says Irving, a photojournalist and garden educator involved with facilitating art installations at Art West. “Art West has introduced me to so many more opportunities to give back to the community.”

Art West’s mission is to revitalize and rebrand the west-side experience through arts and culture. Alexie Young, the founder of Art West, had the idea to open the business after seeing what little access people in the area had to the arts and culture scene. Young, alongside Irving, photojournalist Jay Simon, and co-manager Massiel Hernandez, make up the dynamic team building community outreach around Art West.

“We had artist Rick McNeal create beautiful pieces for the ‘Black Plant-It’ Exhibit and he sold one for a lot of money,” says Simon. “That feeling of providing a platform for artists that might not be confident in their abilities to sell art was incredibly rewarding.”

Early on, Young had a vision. Working at Lawndale’s MLK Exhibit Center inspired Young to partner with two west-side art venues: Legendary Art Gallery near Madison and Western and 345 Art Gallery at Carroll and Kedzie. Together, they curated “Art, Beats, & Vibes,” a one-day event in 2019 that featured local artist performances and music by Chosen Few DJ Mike Dunn. The organizing around this event led to what became the first annual Art West Gallery Tour. Similar to the Bronzeville Art Trolley Tour, the Art West Gallery Tour featured different exhibits at each museum location featuring individuals performing, artists mingling, and chefs serving top-tier food. From there, the idea for Art West was born. 

“The tour was an opportunity to showcase various art-based cultural spaces on the west side, especially for individuals who may live in the area and didn’t know what was available,” says Young. “Curating a tour to open those spaces to allow people to visit within a span of a day gave people the opportunity to see what there is to offer.”

After raising $10,000 in two months for the one-time event, Young saw demand for a consistent space showcasing art on the west side. Hoping to compensate artists, vendors, and wait staff for their time, the money went toward paying labor and providing transportation across exhibits for those on the west side 

Art West, 750 S. California, artwestchicago.com. The venue will host a screening and discussion of the film Really Love on Sat 9/4 at 7 PM. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at Eventbrite.

The Art West space opened in October of 2020 with an exhibition of Young’s work titled “Belizean Roots, Westside Raised.” The project, an exploration of Young’s life as a first-generation Black woman in Chicago from Belize, detailed a promising future where residents rebuild their own community. 

“‘Belizean Roots’ was one of the first shows we curated that captured what Art West aspires to be: a space our ancestors would be proud of,” says Simon. “All the pieces were a reflection of who [Young] is as an artist and we sold every piece besides two at that show.”

Overall, there are not a lot of organizations out west that offer exhibit space for artists in the community. Often, artists who live in Lawndale must travel to places like Hyde Park or Bronzeville to have their art featured, leaving their neighborhood to follow opportunities elsewhere. It’s Art West’s goal to bring those opportunities close to home and, in the words of Irving, this sense of collectivity is what brings people back to the establishment. 

“Art West is a beautiful display of what trusting ideas, art, and the power we all have leads to,” says Irving. “I hope we get to continue this Black art renaissance and put communities together between artists, audience, and art investors.”

Thus far, the influx of followers from Instagram has aided in helping the gallery maintain business, selling out events like an NPR Tiny Desk marathon screening in August. They hope that this long-term engagement helps Art West become a platform to help artists grow, exhibit, and profit from their work.

Despite the success they’ve seen, quarantine didn’t help Art West’s initial beginnings. Starting a business at any time can be an uphill battle, especially during a pandemic. Getting hit with the second city mandate in November, the space was forced to close for a few months, subsisting only on revenue it had earned during the time it was open. 

“Having to close for months at a time when that second mandate happened in 2020 was hard,” says Young. “The aspirations you have as a business owner opening a space during a challenging time can be difficult.”

Gradually reopening in March, Art West found footing offering a number of events, including conceal and carry classes, stepping classes, and a Sunday Visual Series. With events ranging from creative mixers to live music, Art West is testing the waters in terms of what its showcases will look like. Offering experiences for both introverts and extroverts alike, Art West’s goal to showcase artists in Lawndale has brought comedians, musicians, and artists from all walks of life to its doors.  

For further outreach, as part of their membership program, people can host classes in the space monthly or, if you’re open to a $245 monthly rental fee, you can use the space as much as you need for get-togethers, exhibits, or hosting workshops of your own. Members get these perks as well as discounts to events in the space. The membership program was established in March and came from a desire to make Art West accessible as a collective space for artists to pilot some of their own ideas and experiment with concepts in a welcoming environment. 

“There are package options you can pay on a monthly basis starting at $39,” says Simon. “Right now we’re testing this out but it allows members to use the space once a month to host classes or come to our events at a discounted price.” 

Acknowledging misinformation of Lawndale’s negative image, Young hopes Art West’s presence will shift preconceived notions people have of the west side. Situated in an area considered to be a food desert (or more accurately, a food apartheid), Young has seen the community’s resilience in overcoming disparities despite what years of neglect and mistreatment have caused for the environment. 

Overall, the team believes Art West will help change the narrative of people’s outlook and enrich experiences of the west side.

“When you’re trying to rebrand something that has been looked at a certain way for years, there’s a lot of backlash that comes with it,” says Simon. “The rewarding feeling is being able to look back at changing that narrative knowing we were a part of history.” 

“Oftentimes we were concerned people would be afraid to come to this side of town but we’ve worked really hard to curate experiences worth people’s time,” says Young. “When they come to Art West, they don’t want to leave.”

Down the line, Young hopes to expand and revamp the outdoor area in order to drive business to the building. Additionally, the team aims to ensure all artists are compensated for their time as Art West expands. For now, the organization has an anniversary event in the works to commemorate their first year. 

“We’re talking about doing something special for the anniversary in October,” says Simon. “We want to honor the anniversary year of opening the gallery because it’s been so successful and fulfilling thus far.” 

The magic of Art West is the collective community that goes into it. Hierarchy is eradicated as artists mingle with the audience, branching out after their show to make genuine connections with the people they’re surrounded by. With “you deserve to be happy” painted in colorful bright letters on the side of the building, the experience at Art West lives up to its promise that you deserve to be happy and here in this space, you are. 

Art West is raising funds to further expand art opportunities for the West Side and those who would like to assist in that effort can donate to their GoFundMe.