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The Heart and Soul of Pilsen: An Artist Stands Up for Hard-working Latinos

Jeff Zimmermann "Familiar" detail
Image by Señor Codo via Flickr

There is a lot of heart and soul painted onto the bricks that build Pilsen. Local artist Jeff Zimmermann’s four large-scale murals in a two-block span between 19th and Cullerton streets may not be the only works of art that color the neighborhood, but they stand out for their realism. When you look upon the faces in his paintings, you feel like you are looking at a photograph.

Pilsen residents hold the murals in high esteem because they tackle political themes that reflect the issues of the community.

“These murals represent who we are as a culture,” said Aimee Alvarez, 16, a junior at Cristo Rey High School. “They represent that Latinos are a hard-working people. We might not have the best jobs, but we do our best to grow as a society and make a name for ourselves, and progress as a people.”

Zimmermann has been painting outdoor murals since 1997. His murals are featured on buildings in many Chicago neighborhoods and at the National Stadium in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. In 2003, he was selected to participate in the Museum of Contemporary Art‘s “12 x 12: New Artists/New Work,” where he created an indoor mural featuring subjects from the surrounding Streeterville area.

Zimmermann’s newest exhibit “The God Particle,” which he publicly painted throughout the month of October, is a large-scale installation that features local residents and incorporates social, political, and pop-culture references. It opened on Nov. 5 at the Chicago Cultural Center at 78 E. Washington St. and will be featured until Jan. 2.

One of his signature murals in Pilsen, “Increíbles Las Cosas Q’ Se Ven,” painted in 2001, is a triptych on the side of John’s Lavanderia on the corner of 19th Street and Ashland Avenue. It means “Oh, The Things You’ll See.”

The first panel is of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the celebrated Catholic image of The Virgin Mary. There are many different interpretations of this piece. It features the virgin in her cloak, praying with her hands pressed together. In the background, a transparent image of a man stands behind a chain-link fence. Zimmermann painted this mural while he was volunteering with kids in the neighborhood and a priest at St. Pius V parish asked him to paint a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The second panel features portraits of actual people who live and work in the area, clad in green aprons and papers hats, proudly gazing into the distance.

The third panel is a panorama of graduate students, successful chefs and businessmen. Along the top of the mural, Zimmermann painted political figureheads including Oscar Romero and Cesar Chavez.

“The murals represent how our faith and our artistic side mix with each other,” said Jasmine Perez, 17, a senior at Cristo Rey High School. “My favorite painting would have to be this one,” she said, pointing to “Familiar” which stands directly across the street from “Increíbles Las Cosas Q’ Se Ven.” “It represents family and faith. A lot of people in our culture express their feelings and emotions through art.”

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