Intro to Traveling Minds

Pilsen is a uniquely creative Chicago neighborhood, with a uniquely vibrant arts scene that includes public works, museums, a plentitude of artist studios, and a deep connection to many residents’ Mexican heritage. It is also the neighborhood where Urban Gateways teaching artist Victoria Martinez grew up and the neighborhood where her artistic career first found its footing, making it the perfect spot for her Traveling Minds program to lay down roots.

This program, now underway, starts at Benito Juarez Community Academy, where high school students are spending their third period class working with Victoria to learn sewing, embroidery, weaving, and painting techniques. Soon the students will travel to two local elementary schools, Orozco and Pickard, where they will act as mentors to younger students and work on embroidery projects that will contribute to a 10’ by 15’ installation made of fabric and wood, using patterns in their urban environment as inspiration. The final project will be presented at the Latino Art Now! Conference at Pilsen’s National Museum of Mexican Art in April, with process photos and books accompanying the installation. When the conference concludes, the student artwork will travel for display: First to the Carlos and Dominguez Fine Arts Gallery in Pilsen, then to each of the two elementary schools, and finally to Benito Juarez, where it will be displayed permanently.

Traveling Minds at work at Benito Juarez

“I thought about this project idea in 2008. I was participating in a semester study of community arts at the California College of the Arts in Oakland and was taking a grant writing class,” Martinez said. In its original conception, the idea involved mural art; since then, Martinez’ own interest in soft sculpture and fibers has grown.

“I’m excited that this creative idea that was a draft proposal in 2008 will bloom in the form of a community art project involving youth from the neighborhood that I grew up in and that inspired me to pursue a career in the arts,” Martinez said.

“Dolores, te sigo amando” by Victoria Martinez, currently on view in the “Present Standard” exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center

There is a lot going on here: Martinez is using the city as a classroom in this residency in a multitude of ways. The NMMA is a renowned local cultural institution, and students involved with this project will learn about museum deadlines and installation; they’ll even participate in a curator critique. Through the Latino Art Now! Conference, the student participants will receive national exposure to conference attendees from the spectrum of Latino arts including artists, curators, professors, writers, and art collectors.

Traveling Minds also uses neighborhood identity as a focal point; students will explore Pilsen to search for physical markers (which could be anything from deflated balloons to decaying fences) that strike them, and they will use these markers to create patterns in their work. When the installation goes on display, community members will have the opportunity to view it and to reflect on the students’ perspective of Pilsen, bridging generational gaps to create a dialogue around community and identity.

Developing patterns in Traveling Minds

And, of course, the interactions behind high school and elementary school students are a special element of this program; students of different ages will have to work together and organize their artistic visions as one collective work.

“This is very exciting because our students will act as mentors to the younger generation in hopes of inspiring them to continue to explore art as they get older, especially because every person involved will be able to experience their mark-making in a professional art institution,” Martinez said.

Traveling Minds is about the pride and creativity that a community can encourage in its residents; it is also about ensuring that art flows down through generations. From Victoria’s artistic roots in the neighborhood, to high school artists mentoring younger students just beginning to understand their own creative capabilities, this program uses fibers and wood to harness a much larger mentality. We will continue to follow this program as it flourishes this spring.

Benito Juarez embroidery project

Sewing machine demo with Victoria

Thanks to Benito Juarez Community Academy (and art teacher Ms. Camacho), Orozco Community Academy, Pickard Elementary, buildOn, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and Casa Juan Diego for collaborating to make Traveling Minds into a reality. Additional thanks to Patricia and Len Dominguez of the Carlos and Dominguez Fine Arts Gallery for their in-kind donation of two sewing machines. Victoria and Traveling Minds are also the recipients of funding through this year’s Julie Reynolds Shaw Memorial Award. We appreciate all of this generous support!