Roberto Lopez loves women. The 49-year-old gallery owner has photographed women of every age, race, culture, physique, social status, and sexual orientation. Some of his subjects are actresses, artists, models, designers, writers, and poets; others are prostitutes, drug dealers, and lunatics. Some have died, moved away, or simply vanished, while others still come to visit him. But each of them, Lopez insists, has left her mark on his soul.

Several years ago an artist friend told Lopez she was going to kill herself because her boyfriend didn’t love her anymore, even bringing the pills to prove she was serious. Lopez says he reminded her of all the people who would miss her and tried to steer her from despair to hope. “I just kept talking and talking,” he recalls, “and before I knew it, she was crying and saying she wasn’t going to do it anymore.” The woman moved away, got married, and had a child; Lopez was the photographer at her wedding. He shows me a photo of the woman in her white gown and beaded headdress. After she moved out of her studio Lopez found her diary, the last entry of which recounted their intimate conversation. He’s kept it ever since.

Another portrait shows a woman in a gangster hat and pin-striped suit, a menacing grin on her face as she points a tiny revolver at the camera. “This woman is a lesbian and told me she’s terrified of men,” says Lopez. “We talked about her fears, and I told her I was going to make her look so powerful that she wouldn’t be afraid of anybody.”

Sometimes when a woman comes to him for advice, he encourages her to pose, letting her choose from his collection of toys and costumes. His small studio is packed to the rafters with cowboy hats, toy guns, musical horns, pin-striped tuxedos, feather boas. Once the women pick up toys or costumes, says Lopez, they tend to let down their guard. They dance, sing, scowl, and throw tantrums, losing their inhibitions in front of his camera. Later, after this photographic art therapy has drawn them from their shells, he urges them to nurture that spirit.

Lopez arrived in Chicago 27 years ago; an immigrant from Mexico City, he lived on the street for nearly two weeks until someone led him to a nearby community center. For the past 13 years he’s managed the Flat Iron Building and operated two of its galleries: the Roberto Lopez Gallery on the second floor and the Flat Iron Gallery on the third floor. According to a recent brochure, the galleries’ mission is to bring together a shared culture of “art, poetry, food, fabric, dance, crafts, song, drama, film, and video.” But Lopez has broadened their mission on occasion, using the spaces to house indigent friends and neighbors; temporary residents are expected to look for a new living arrangement and perform odd jobs in exchange for shelter.

Two months ago Lopez was fired as building manager. “They let me go because they said I was harboring homeless people,” he admits. One night, with the temperature plunging below zero, he spotted a homeless woman preparing a makeshift bed of newspapers. “It was so cold, I knew she wasn’t going to make it through the night,” he recalls. He asked her if she wanted to sleep in the hallway of the building. The woman spent her nights in the building until residents complained about her “craziness.” But by then, says Lopez, she had found a new place to live.

As a result of losing his job, Lopez has had to forfeit one of the galleries, and now the Roberto Lopez/Flat Iron Galleries share the third-floor space. “This is the way of the cultural man,” says Lopez’s girlfriend, Virginia Boyle, a writer and director. “Roberto is a cultural worker, and he does his job well.”

Lopez says he’s deeply interested in the social conditions of women. Having seen his friends and sisters endure pain, hardship, and discrimination, he says he wants to embrace their joys and triumphs. Through the end of March, Lopez will be showing paintings, photographs, sculpture, video, and mixed-media work by more than 45 women artists as part of the galleries’ fifth annual International Women’s Day celebration and exhibit. Hours are noon to 5 Fridays through Sundays. For more information, call 773-227-6221.

–Marcia E. Gawecki

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Roberto Lopez photo by Randy Tunell.