Over the course of the late 90s, a dozen or so mysterious artworks sprang up along the streets of West Town. The oblong sculptures–built from pieces of wood, metal, street signs, and other found material–roughly resembled doors, and had been installed on derelict storefronts and construction sites, places more often appropriated for music and movie posters. Most pieces survived a few months at best, although one, near Damen and Chicago, stayed up almost a year.

Juan Angel Chavez thinks he knows who’s responsible–who removed the trash he’d turned into art in his Pilsen studio. The neighboring property or business owners ripped them down and threw them away, or passersby–in some cases people he knows–pried the doors loose and took them home.

Chavez insists he wasn’t too upset that his doors wound up junked or collected. “They lived their life and served their purpose,” he says. “If the space can be used for advertising, why not put art up there? Doors have connotations of possibility and change. I tried to make them look like they were forms that had grown naturally out of the city’s environment and attached themselves to things.” Also, he says, “It was fun–kind of a rush.”

Some of Chavez’s other guerrilla art projects have been more pointedly political. In 1996 he helped paint an anti-police-brutality mural on plywood that was hung on a fence near Division and Wood, and in 1999 he and a friend placed a life-size cast-concrete human figure on Lower Wacker just as the city was evicting the area’s homeless population and erecting fences. The artists hoped the reclining sculpture would take up extended residence, but two weeks later it was found smashed to pieces. “It became symbolic of the attitude that the city had toward homeless people,” says Chavez.

Now 31, Chavez could barely speak English when he moved to Chicago with his family from Mexico in 1985. He picked up the language by reading, watching TV, and hanging out at Foster Beach, and two years later he was enrolled in a gifted-student program at Senn High School. His family eventually settled in Aurora, where Chavez finished high school in 1990, but he moved back to Chicago soon after graduation. He took a few classes at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute but never got a degree; he credits the art history books at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, where he was an intern from 1991 to ’93, with inspiring him to pursue an activist role as a community artist and educator.

Chavez has made a living through art ever since, working with youth groups to create murals and mosaics for schools, community centers, and other sites and creating permanent studio works that–like his street installations–use scavenged debris from industrial sites and train yards to explore the relationships between nature and culture, urban decay and regeneration. He’s shown his sculptures, installations, and collages at the MFACM, Gallery 312, and the Hyde Park Art Center as well as at other nonprofit and alternative spaces, and in 2001 he received a $10,000 grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

Lately Chavez has been preoccupied with two large-scale site-specific projects. Last fall he and fellow Chicago Public Art Group member Corinne Peterson completed three years of work on Hopes and Dreams, an 1,800-square-foot glass-and-ceramic mosaic that covers three walls of the atrium of the CTA’s new Near South Transfer Tunnel, which connects the subway and elevated lines at Roosevelt and State. The mosaic includes over 4,000 clay tiles carved by visitors to the museum campus along Lake Shore Drive in the summer of 1999 as part of the city’s Project Millennium cultural initiative. “From design to installation, the project was just overwhelming,” says Chavez. “I felt like I was swamped for years.” Still, that same fall he found enough time to scour lots and back alleys for a hodgepodge of castoffs that he’s used to create an elaborate installation in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “12 x 12” exhibition space. Composed of more than 30 light-box sculptures hand-built with salvaged lumber and signage, as well as numerous wood relief cutouts of clouds and trees and crafted assemblages of other found objects such as toys, the installation evokes a room-size Joseph Cornell cabinet full of reconstructed H.C. Westerman discards. “I was thinking specifically of how to invade the walls and transform the space with a whole new body of work,” he says. “These aren’t things I had laying around in my studio….Each object I collected is about a specific moment in the city, so the piece is like a short film.”

And now that these two commissions are completed, he says he’s looking forward to having some fun again. “It’s been two years since I’ve done something illegal.”

Chavez will talk about his work at the MCA, 220 E. Chicago, on Tuesday, January 21, at noon. It’s free (as is Tuesday admission to the museum); call 312-280-2660 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Fogelman.