Yollocalli And The Artistry Of Young Chicago

Written and photographed by Patty Johnson

In an unassuming building on the second floor of the Boys and Girls Club in Chicago’s “Little Village” neighborhood, a budding photographer can explore her technique, a young painter may freely decorate a canvas, and a hopeful TV producer has access to the perfect lighting equipment that would otherwise be difficult to come by. This is Yollocalli Arts Reach.

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A lively mural has been painted onto the building in which the art program resides. The artwork reads, “Yollocalli. Home.” Photo by Patty Johnson.

Yollocalli, which means “heart house,” is an initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art. The program, which embraces expression through multiple mediums, offers a range of artistic opportunities for young people between 13 and 24 years old. On this summer day, students are critiquing each other’s work with a keen eye and encouraging tone in a popular murals class where participants create art under the guidance of established artists.

Teachers walk around the room and ask students what they like about their pieces. The atmosphere is warm and supportive. Appraising one piece, the instructor says, “This one can be a mural all by itself,” and goes on to explain why.

“My art is a way of getting away from hard stuff,” said Gloria Valle. Photo by Patty Johnson.

With a bright smile, student Gloria Valle displays various pieces, one of which might be a template for a mural the class will be creating and another which is currently displayed at a city bus shelter. Valle has been a student at Yollocalli for one year, and when she first began drawing, she says she “didn’t know how to put art together.”

At the young age of 18, Valle has already withstood multiple personal hardships. Adding to this, she explains, is her disappointment about the state of the country. “My art is a way of getting away from hard stuff. When you’re surrounded by negativity, this is an escape,” says Valle. “[Yollocalli] feels like home. We’re here for each other as people. That’s what our community needs.”

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This mural was created by Yollocalli students on a wall of a local flower shop under the direction of artist Chris Silva. Photo by Patty Johnson.

“Groovie” is 23 years old and has been a student since 2016. She’s a bit shy but nothing like she used to be, she says: “When I first came here I was more shy and reserved, and after being here a while, I was able to talk more. I was able to put my ideas out there.”

Groovie was first inspired to draw at a young age as she watched her father paint. But when her father later left the family, she abandoned her love of art. More recently, her desire to reconnect with it has resurfaced. Groovie draws. She draws about love, the mother-child relationship, global warming, and anything else she pleases. “I really love it here. It’s not just helping me. It’s helping other people.”

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This student-created piece lives on a stretch of wooden fence on a fairly quiet residential street. Photo by Patty Johnson.

Carlos Ramirez became involved with Yollocalli in 2014. Ramirez, age 22, says that at Yollocalli, he “learned about discipline and how to work with people with more ease.”

Because Ramirez has spent three years here, he has made observations about newer students. “As weeks go by they come out of their bubble. They become who they’re supposed to be.”

Ramirez reflects on a mural he helped with that he passes by often. “We see the mural across the street from the jail, and it’s gray and cold but you walk on the other side and you see all these shapes and colors,” says Ramirez. “In this community where violence is prominent, Yollocalli is a hub for creativity.”

The students’ artwork can be found throughout Chicago, many times in unexpected places. Some murals capture themes of equality, unity, peace and the many vibrant colors of the immigrant experience. Other pieces are inspired by the types of buildings artists used as their canvases, and some are born out of abstract expression. A mural map can be found on Yollocalli’s website and offers locations and a brief description of each piece. 


Patty Johnson is a health psychologist from Chicago who enjoys writing and speaking about spirituality, culture and justice. She recently finished a memoir about her secret American boyfriend, her very angry Indians parents who find out and the unraveling of the whole hot mess.  She can be contacted at www.pjtemple.com.

Pictured on the cover, Carlos Ramirez 

Copyright © 500 Pens. September 2017.