Full House

Home Is Where the Art Is

By Linda Lutton

Six-year-old Eric Salgado is Rollerblading through the house–in the back door, through the kitchen, past the dining room, into the living room. “Hey! Watch the paintings!” his father shouts as Eric just barely misses two works by Mexican artist Ismael Rodriguez that are propped up against a sharp turn near the coffee table.

From the outside, the Salgado home on Keeler near Fullerton looks like a typical northwest-side bungalow–tidy, compact, encircled by marigolds. But inside, a family’s love for art and dedication to culture have converted it into one of the biggest collections of contemporary Latin American art in the city.

“We feel a passion for art,” explains Erasmo Salgado, who immigrated here from rural Guerrero, Mexico, as a teenager 20 years ago. He spent his first years in Chicago making pizzas, laying the chalk baselines of suburban baseball diamonds, cleaning carpets, and delivering office supplies at a big northwest-side printing company. He now runs his own small office-cleaning company, E & E Building Maintenance Service. But the farther time takes Salgado from his immigrant roots, the harder he works to keep them near. “Our idea is to have a piece of our culture at home with us, to show off the richness of our culture. Somehow little by little we’ve gathered more.”

Indeed, paintings and prints cram the Salgado home, which, crowded as any house with playthings, junk mail, and the stuff of daily living, looks more like the bursting back room of a museum than a gallery. Works hung on the walls nearly overlap. (Erasmo and his wife, Maria, also from Guerrero, have lost count, but they figure they own somewhere between 160 and 200 pieces). Large rolls of canvas lean against the wall of the spare bedroom, awaiting hanging. Paintings are squeezed onto the patch of wall framed by the top and bottom bunk beds of the couple’s two teenage sons. All the lights in the house are on even though it’s early afternoon. Art has become the Salgados’ sun; paintings cover windows in nearly every room. Erasmo and Maria joke about having to either turn to the ceiling for display space or find another house.

The Salgados pursue art collecting with as much fervor as other families do the traditional American dream. But a house in the suburbs, brand-name clothes, another car–these things hold little interest for the Salgados.

Maria and Erasmo–who met in Chicago–pick out all new works together, often accompanied by one of their four children. Gradually the paintings and prints weave their way into the fabric of the family. “In the house every work has its place,” says Maria. “When we take them down to paint the house, it feels hollow, empty, sad–like something is missing.”

“We breathe art,” adds Erasmo. Their three-year-old, Sheni, is sifting through a stack of art magazines, invitations to openings in Santo Domingo and Bogota, and glossy flyers from local galleries. She holds up a copy of Hispanic magazine with a photo of a well-known local painter on the cover.

“Who’s this, papi?” she asks.

“You know who that is, mi’ija.”

“Oh yeah,” she says, smiling coquettishly, showing off. “It’s Alejandro Romero.”

“All my children paint,”says Erasmo. He himself doesn’t, but can remember being interested in art early on. “When I was in third grade in Mexico, I drew a lion for a contest,” he says. “I found some little coins from costume jewelry and I glued them on the page to look like stars. They gave me a little prize for it–a lunch and a Coca-Cola.” Oscar, 16, Alberto, 14, and Eric have all taken formal art lessons. Some of their early efforts hang on the walls next to paintings and prints that Erasmo figures belong to “the masters of a generation.”

“When we bring a new work of art home, they observe it: for them it’s a natural thing. They are surrounded by our culture.” The Salgado kids sleep among the bright fish and crocodiles of Luis Fernando Uribe; La Llorona of 18th Street, Marcos Raya’s life-size depiction of a fairy-tale Pilsen prostitute, stands watch at the foot of the boys’ bunks.

While nearly all the artists in the Salgado collection are Latin American–“with one or two gringos,” as Erasmo puts it–most have spent significant amounts of time in Chicago; many live here. The collection provides one of the most thorough chronicles in the city of the Chicago Latino art scene. “These artists are part of a Latino art movement in Chicago,” says Erasmo. “In a way we are rescuing a little bit of our culture, rescuing a chapter of history.”

In brilliant tropical colors, the works address such topics as government repression, chicanismo, and Latin American village life. Clearly, much of what the Salgados see in these paintings hits close to home. “For me the idea of this piece is of crossing the border,” Erasmo says, pointing to Corazon fugitivo, a painting by local muralist Hector Duarte. Two hearts are painted side by side in bright reds and purples; an arrow cuts sharply through one. “Their heart is being torn away,” Erasmo explains. “Because many people come here with that feeling. Their heart is bleeding, crying. They come with an arrow piercing their heart.”

The Salgados’ passion began quietly with the purchase of two decorative canvases, which turned out to be instructive in what they were not. “We found them empty,” says Erasmo. “I got tired of looking at them.” With time and help from some of the artists now represented in their collection, the Salgados learned to look for the consistency and development of technique they say goes into a good work. “Now when I buy a work of art I look for one that has spirit, one that is rich in texture, in color,” says Erasmo. He spends hours observing works by Puerto Rican printmaker Benjamin Varela, Mexican-American painter Mario Castillo, and Guatemalan artist Rodolfo Abularach, and almost giddily describes new discoveries he makes about pieces he may have had for months.

Both Maria and Erasmo say that looking at works of art by some of the greats–Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco, Frida Kahlo, and Maria Izquierdo, as well as Picasso, El Greco, and Chagall–has helped them develop their collector’s eye as well. But when it comes to their own collection, the Salgados buy exclusively from living artists, many of them struggling to make ends meet in Chicago’s barrios. “What I’m interested in is the here and now, the moment we’re living today,” says Erasmo. That’s meant significant support for emerging Latino artists, many of whom find the gringo art market cold to their work. “We buy from these artists even though they’re not big yet because we believe in them and what they’re doing. I buy their art; that’s believing in them to the fullest.”

But the Salgados’ relationship with artists is much more than monetary. Painters stop by the Salgado home for dinner or just to chat. Erasmo makes frequent visits to artists’ studios, interested in the creation of art and the development of the artist as well as the finished product. “When I buy a work of art, there’s always a relationship that forms with the artist, an exchange of ideas,” says Erasmo.

Forty-three works in a variety of media (but mostly prints) from the Salgado collection are on display through August 30 at the Northwestern University Settlement House (1014 N. Noble; 278-7471). The tragedy is that nearly all of the works on display are normally kept in storage; the Salgados have nowhere to put them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Erasmo and Maria Salgado, with children and art works, by J.B. Spector.