In the eyes of some, “west Pilsen” is defined less by what it is than by what it isn’t–east Pilsen, the increasingly gentrified area around Halsted and 18th Street that’s home to many galleries and artists’ studios.

“East Pilsen is Podmajersky town,” says artist and longtime Pilsen resident Hector Duarte, referring to the Podmajersky family, developers who own more than 100 buildings in the area and rent to many artists. “They have different conceptions about the community.”

Many Pilsen artists, particularly Latinos, have felt excluded from the Artists’ Open House, the fall studio tour the Podmajerskys founded and have run since 1970. Like east Pilsen’s come to be, the open house was always mostly Anglo. The past few years it’s been devoted primarily to Podmajersky tenants–Pod people, to some.

This year, a group of westerners struck back. The last weekend in October big black banners with painted white numbers hung outside houses, studios, and a few cafes announcing work on view by around 30 artists as part of the first Pilsen Open Studios. Participants ranged from established artists like Duarte, who’s exhibited internationally and was offering paintings priced in the thousands, to younger newcomers like brothers Juan and Ricardo Compean, who exhibited industrial streetscapes in the living room of an apartment on Cermak.

It was a group effort. Led by Duarte and his wife, Linda Lutton, the artists started holding meetings about the event last spring. They pitched in for posters, designed the map, got local businesses to sponsor a trolley for the tour. Many spent the weekend before the open house in Duarte’s studio painting the banners.

“Usually people think that east Pilsen and the Mexican Fine Arts Center is all there is,” says Mark Nelson, who grew up in Panama and portrays the U.S. invasion there in many of the works in his Gringolandia Studio on West 21st Street. “It’s exciting letting the rest of the city know about the artists here.”

The west Pilsen art scene has been getting more attention outside the neighborhood over the past year or two–Duarte himself was featured on the cover of the city’s Chicago Artists’ Month brochure in October. The Tribune has profiled Carlos Cortez and other artists connected with Taller Mestizarte, a print workshop and artists’ collective in the APO building on 18th Street, which is something of

a neighborhood hub. Pilsen’s community murals are widely known; Jose Guerrero (also a member of Taller Mestizarte) leads well-attended tours that regularly attract visitors from out of state.

Visitors to the open studios came largely from outside Pilsen. “Most of the people coming here are from the north side,” said Mauricio Vasquez, a Chilean immigrant who paints and practices with his band in his space in the APO. Guerrero says about 500 people came through Taller Mestizarte; painter and photographer Jeff Abbey Maldonado estimates 1,000 toured his studio in the building.

Most artists reported just a handful of purchases. But that, they say, wasn’t the point.

“For the first time, this was great,” says Eufemio Pulido, whose studio on 19th Place featured pounding techno music to complement his brightly colored and vaguely apocalyptic cubist works. “It wasn’t really about sales, more about meeting new people. This is like the early years of Around the Coyote.”

Juan Chavez, who builds light boxes and other installation sculptures out of found objects, notes that this can be a double-edged sword. “It’s good to have people know where you’re at and how you work–that’s a positive thing,” he says. “It’s not a positive thing when the neighborhood starts changing.” Miguel Cortez, one of the founders of the Polvo artists’ collective on West 18th, says that in Wicker Park, “all the artists I know are gone. After they made the area hip, they couldn’t afford the rent.”

Gentrification’s a concern for all of the west Pilsenites. “As artists we’re trying to survive off whatever income we can create from our work. We can’t afford to live in nice fancy studios,” says Maldonado. “These affordable spaces are quietly disappearing, all the spaces that were once available are becoming condos. I think it’s time for artists to put their egos aside and come together, like we did this weekend, to start doing some work for the community.”

Does that include east Pilsen artists, the so-called Pod people? “All artists speak the same language,” says Duarte. “We don’t have problems with them.”

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