Painter Robert Valadez sets out acrylic paint for mural work in the prayer hall of First Lutheran Church in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood.

Message Meets Necessity in the Artwork of Robert Valadez

Published September 8, 2021

The balancing act between art that inspires revolution and the everyday needs of a working artist have defined Southwest Side muralist Robert Valadez’s artwork, opportunities and his migration from a McKinley Park neighborhood atelier.

 
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“When I was first coming up, my idea was to use art to create social change,” he said. “Then life got in the way.”

 
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Valadez, whose murals adorn surfaces and architecture across Chicago, said he first started painting murals in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood where he grew up.

"Frida La Guerillera" by Robert Valadez, 24" by 38", acrylic on canvas, 2015"Frida La Guerillera" by Robert Valadez, 24" by 38", acrylic on canvas, 2015“When I was 17, people in Pilsen were getting influenced by Mexican mural painters,” Valadez said.

“At that time, I had started painting, and I also joined the mural movement,” he said, assisting other muralists with their work and participating in summer youth programs.

Early Struggle

His early career as an artist was a struggle, Valadez said. “I studied art and wanted to paint independently at a young age. But I had to take up many commercial projects to survive.”

Valadez’s first big project came in 1999, when the Sterling Mural Society in Sterling, Illinois, commissioned him to document the history of the Latino community in that northwest Illinois community.

“It’s my largest mural to date,” Valadez said.

Parents and Painters

Big influences in Valadez’s art come from his father, who grew up near Taylor and Halsted and worked for the army, and his grandfather, who immigrated to Chicago from Mexico in the 1920s to work in a metal foundry, he said.

 
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Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and Chicago painter William Walker, who founded the mural movement in the 1960s, have also been big influences, Valadez said.

“I was once asked why I represented Frida armed with a gun, and not with flowers in her hair,” Valadez said of his 2015 painting “Frida La Guerillera.”

Rosita Adelita

A Robert Valadez mural in progress at First Lutheran Church awaits more paint to depict its story of Moses.A Robert Valadez mural in progress at First Lutheran Church awaits more paint to help depict its story of Moses.“My answer was simple: Why not? The revolution needs all of us,” he wrote in a Facebook post about the painting.

One of Valadez’s most well-known paintings is “Rosita Adelita,” a 2010 re-depiction of the famous wartime “We Can Do It!” poster from WWII. Valadez’s version combines the Rosie the Riveter image with another fictional pre-feminist archetype: La Adelita, a character from the Mexican Revolution.

Valadez refrains from describing his work as protest art, he said. “All art is political, while not always in overt terms.”

Food Justice at First Lutheran

He cites an example of this in his most recent work at the First Lutheran Church of the Trinity in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood.

“My murals for the First Lutheran Church do have a political message,” he said. “The issue of food justice is a very urgent and pressing matter for poor communities, particularly communities of color.”

 
New Xfinity Store now open at 3145 S. Ashland Ave.

 
New Xfinity Store now open at 3145 S. Ashland Ave.

The mural of Moses being fed one last time by his mother before set adrift “aims to depict child nutrition and women’s health and tie that in with the topic of food justice for women and children,” Valadez said.

Valadez and a few other local artists are painting the original murals in the church’s prayer hall, a service that Valadez is providing while he uses a section of the church for a studio space and gets kids involved in mural project.

Surviving During Pandemic

Rosita Adelita adorns one of the posters awaiting buyers in Robert Valadez's studio space.Rosita Adelita adorns one of the posters awaiting buyers in Robert Valadez's studio space.Valadez used to have a studio in the McKinley Park neighborhood, but he had to vacate it in 2018 after his parents were hospitalized for influenza, and his father passed away later that year. He set up a studio in his parents' garage, but then the COVID-19 pandemic created even more struggles, he said.

“All of a sudden, I was out of work. I had nothing to do,” he said. “I had to wait for the pandemic to die down before I could find work again.”

To get by during the pandemic, Valadez sold many items through his Etsy shop, which continues to offer wares featuring his art.

Valadez said he now hopes to connect with other Southwest Side artists – “the creative tip of working communities of color” – who are interested in creating community murals.

“I am eager to work on projects that are of interest to people,” he said. “I would like to see stuff with substance on walls.”

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