An exhibit of work by artist Jose Zavala, of the southwest suburbs, is on display through April at the Donna Pope Gallery & Studio in Elmhurst.
♦ Through April, with an opening reception from 6:30-9:30 p.m. March 22
♦ Donna Pope Gallery & Studio,
185 N. York St., 2nd Floor, Elmhurst
♦ (708) 987-3366; angelart.net
Updated: April 16, 2013 3:13PM
The colors seem to dance off Jose Zavala’s canvases. The messages within those vivid acrylic works are just as striking.
In the artist’s evocative “Children of the Sun” series you see the struggles of the immigrant population — a barefoot pioneer doing hard labor (“Pionero”), a mother working day and night to support her family (“Madre Dia y Noche”), a young woman raising her child without a partner (“Alone”).
Works from this series and Zavala’s other equally impressive portraits, surreal works and other pieces are on display at Donna Pope Gallery & Studio in downtown Elmhurst.
Given the talent of this 41-year-old artist, it is startling to learn that until October, when he had a one-man show at the Addison Center for the Arts, no one but his family had seen his body of work.
More than 80 large canvases were crammed into every possible space in his apartment.
What is more surprising, though, when you hear Zavala’s story, is he has lived long enough to show his work.
Now, Zavala is a happily married father of three, living in the southwest suburbs.
He has worked at the same scale calibrating company for nine years. That’s a long way from his early years.
Zavala said he doesn’t dwell on the past but he does look back from time to time recalling, “when I was sleeping in the public washrooms in the park on the West Side of Chicago at one point, drug-addicted.
“Look where I’m at now. It’s a totally different life.”
The artist was born in a Texas border town but grew up in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
“My dad was an alcoholic, always job to job, sometimes not even working. My mom was a very Christian lady who was always working so I hardly saw my mom,” Zavala related.
“I joined street gangs in Pilsen. At the age of 17, I was shot. I was in Mount Sinai Hospital fighting for my life. That brought me deeper into the gangs and into the drugs.”
He credits Teen Challenge Chicago, a Christian program, with helping him start to change his way of thinking.
He lived there for 14 months but when Zavala returned to Pilsen, he once again abused drugs.
“I started selling drugs as I got older to make a living and I wound up getting addicted,” he said. “My mom couldn’t handle it. She threw me out.”
While he was living in a park, a Navy recruiter asked him for directions and wound up recruiting him into the Navy at the age of 22.
Zavala spent 2 1/2 months in boot camp but was then kicked out of the Navy because he had drugs in his system.
People Zavala met in the Navy urged him to move to Seattle to get away from Chicago’s drug and gang scene.
Discovering that his then-girlfriend, now his wife, wouldn’t take him back because she wasn’t convinced he was clean, Zavala moved to Seattle.
Life was different there. “Clean slate,” he said. “I didn’t have to be Mr. Tough Guy. All of the Christian things I learned — to be humble, to be nice — started kicking in.
“Little by little, I started turning my life around.”
Zavala returned to Chicago 3 1/2 years later a changed man and married his loyal girlfriend.
He has been drawing and painting since he was a child.
His work first came to the attention of the art world when he hired photographer Audrey Lowe to help him create a catalog of his work.
“Her mouth dropped when she saw the painting of the prisoners in Mexico,” Zavala recalled.
Lowe connected him with the Elmhurst Artists’ Guild where he was encouraged to exhibit his work.
“I was embarrassed because these are all people with pedigrees in art and I’ve never studied art,” Zavala said.
“I barely got a high school diploma — I got a GED. I felt really intimidated.”
He finally relented and entered a painting of his niece dressed for Halloween in a Day of the Dead costume for a guild competition.
“I didn’t win but Annette Leiber from Addison Center for the Arts was there,” Zavala related.
She told him she needed artwork for an October exhibit celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month.
That’s how he got that one-man show. To Leiber’s surprise 200 people attended the opening.
He connected with Pope gallery owner Donna Pope when he came to see an exhibit at her gallery in November.
When she saw photos of his pieces, Pope thought they were “absolutely great,” she said.
“I like the boldness and it rings a bell with me. I understand what he’s saying with his work.”
Zavala said when he was asked about his artist’s statement, he said, “I hope people focus on my bright colors so they don’t see my dark past.”
Looking at Zavala’s work it’s easy to see his bright future.