Artist Obaji Nyambi recalls the time a cab driver–a fellow Nigerian–taking him home one night didn’t want to venture into Wicker Park because he thought the neighborhood was too dicey. Times have changed; these days, hacks regularly cruise the vicinity of North, Damen, and Milwaukee–especially at night.

Not all artists have been driven out of Wicker Park by the rising costs of housing and studio space. Earlier this month Nyambi and Raul Ortiz Bonilla, both painters who have lived and worked in the area for ten years, opened an art gallery as part of their new Global Pie Studios at 1542 N. Milwaukee.

That two longtime neighborhood artists have been able to set up what Ortiz Bonilla calls a “forum for public interaction” on one of the city’s most sought-after blocks would seem to fly in the face of the area’s gentrification. Nyambi and Ortiz Bonilla had talked for years about finding a joint studio; when a space in the Lubinski Furniture building became available last fall, the pair dug deep into their pockets and spent six months renovating it, as well as creating a 1,000-square-foot venue they named Pi Gallery.

“We’re not here just because of the improvements in the neighborhood,” says Nyambi, who for many years maintained a studio in back of the adjacent (and recently reconfigured) Beret International Gallery. “It might look like we’re outsiders benefiting from the economic changes. But I’m not sure all the restaurants and bars are conducive to a gallery atmosphere.”

Pi will strive for an international flavor, says Ortiz Bonilla, a native of Puerto Rico who’d watched the rent for his garret in the Flat Iron Building escalate since he moved in during the late 80s. “We want a gallery where we can have exchanges with artists from the Americas, Europe, Africa, from the neighborhood and all over the world. We’re at a point in our careers when we want to keep our minds fresh.” They also hope to host poetry readings, performances, and other events.

Although the artists have two decades of exhibiting experience between them, neither knew anything about running a gallery. They weren’t prepared for all the work that went into organizing Pi’s first exhibit, “Open Walls,” a group show of work by 22 artists. (Deborah Lader’s Screw Altar, a mixed-media work on a notched bedpost, is a standout piece.) Nyambi and Ortiz Bonilla now plan to open up half of their ten annual shows to guest curators.

But they both say that putting their painting careers on hold to create a space of their own has been worth the time, toil, and expense. “Maybe it’ll inspire other people in the neighborhood to establish their own spaces instead of complaining,” says Ortiz Bonilla. “This is going to be something a little different.”

“It has to be,” retorts Nyambi. “We’re both broke.”

“Open Walls” is at Pi Gallery, 1542 N. Milwaukee, through this Saturday. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 1 to 6. For more information call 773-486-0057.

–Jeff Huebner

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo of Raul Ortiz and Obaji Nyambi and of “Screw Altar” and “Pressure Point” by Nathan Mandell.