Spreading Her Wings on Harrison Street

Spreading Her Wings on Harrison Street

By Kelly Pollock, feature writer for The Buzz Cafe

After more than 30 years as a professional artist, Tia Etu of Whatever Comes to Mind Studio feels like she has finally arrived. “Of course, I want to arrive higher than this,” she laughs, “But 2021 has been a good year.”

Growing up in the Chatham neighborhood of Chicago, Tia had a troubled childhood. “My mother was mentally ill and I was on my own a lot. Sometimes I was sent to live with relatives. Once in junior high, I had done something wrong. I was sent to the office where they asked me to draw a picture of Mickey Mouse for the bulletin board. They liked my drawing and from then on, art is the thing that kept me OK. No matter what, I had this thing that I was good at. And people praised me for it,” says Tia.

When she was a senior in high school, Tia’s counselor got her a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “College hadn’t even crossed my mind. But that’s how I wound up really serious about art.”

Wanting the best for her biracial son is what brought Tia to Oak Park in the 1980’s. “I didn’t want him in an all-black neighborhood or an all-white neighborhood, but I knew in Oak Park that he would fit right in,” says Tia. At that time, the Oak Park Arts District did not exist as it does today. “There was a live/work space available at 11 Harrison Street and I applied for it. I was surprised when I got it, but it was great space. Unfortunately, I struggled to make a living and then the building was sold and I had to move.”

It was only about 10 years ago that Tia returned to the Arts District when she opened her current studio at 27 Harrison Street. “The first couple of years it was a struggle, but then I started getting more commissions. And it kept growing and growing. And now I’m finally getting to a place of being respected enough that I haven’t looked for one job that I’ve had recently. They have all come to me,” says Tia.

Earlier this year, Tia had a mural unveiled at the Walmart at 4650 W. North Avenue in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. The mural is called “Generations” and was selected as part of the Walmart Community Mural Program. It features the iconic “Pink House” that has been a neighborhood landmark for more than 30 years.

More recently, Tia completed her largest and highest-paying mural to date. It’s located at 810 Beloit Avenue in Forest Park and took her about three weeks to complete. “The owner of the building wanted something with movement that was colorful and playful,” says Tia. The result is “Imagine” and depicts three goldfish swimming against a background of clouds.

Closer to home, Tia has been brightening the front of her studio at Humphrey and Harrison with a floral sculpture garden. “I started the first garden because nothing would grow there and so I decided to make some flowers out of metal. Now things grow like crazy,” laughs Tia. Her newest addition is a bright orange flower made out of a “Road Construction Ahead” sign. “I had the sign for several years, but I finally cut it and got it ready. I always wanted a flower made from a reflective sign and I couldn’t be happier with it.”

Looking to the future, Tia would love to complete a building-size mural. “The idea scares me to no end since I have problems with heights. But before I leave this earth, I would like to do one huge mural.” She is also hoping to bring her metal flowers in larger-than-life form to the Morton Arboretum.

Although Tia works in a lot of different mediums and has a lot of different styles, “they all look like me,” she says. “That’s why my business is called ‘Whatever Comes to Mind.’” To see more of Tia’s paintings, drawings, murals, sculptures, and jewelry, visit Whatever Comes to Mind Studio at 27 Harrison Street. She can be reached at 708-299-2878 or through her website at www.whatevercomestomind.com.

The BackStory Project

The BackStory Project

Theater, at its heart, is storytelling. When Open Door Theater found itself unable to produce live theater, due to the pandemic, the company needed to find another way to tell stories, to connect with its communities. The answer was to look into its communities to share the stories of people whose efforts enrich the lives of our communities. These individuals may do so through their businesses, their non-profit organizations or their volunteer commitments.
The heart of these stories is two-fold: WHY do they do this work? And WHAT was the journey that brought them to that place?
The first series of interviews is with the editors/publishers of local community newspapers, as they continuously inform people about life in their communities, and, with the owners of two diners/family restaurants as their establishments are the places people go to meet as much as to eat. Newspapers and diners connect people one to another.
Starting October 12th, one interview per week will be posted on Open Door’s website. Each interview is approximately 20 minutes in length. They are free of charge but supporting donations will be gratefully accepted. Click on “The BackStory Project” and enjoy these amazing stories.
Interview #1 will be with Dan Haley, editor of the Wednesday Journal Oak Park River Forest and publisher of Growing Community Media. In it we learn which elected official Dan calls “a terrific, terrific lady” and why. Check out the video HERE!

Taco Mucho Gusto!

Taco Mucho Gusto!

By Kelly Pollock, feature writer for The Buzz Cafe

As a child growing up in Indiana, Ron Aleman loved watching his mother and grandmothers in their own kitchens. After college at Purdue University, Ron worked in sales. But he had always really enjoyed cooking and was considering culinary school. It was the events of September 11, however, that gave him the push he needed. “Life is too short,”Ron told himself, eventually graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago. Now twenty years later, Ron is the owner of his own restaurant, Taco Mucho, at 220 Harrison Street in the Oak Park Arts District.

Taco Mucho’s first incarnation was at Fulton Galley in Chicago in 2019. “I had heard about a food hall that was accepting applications for restaurant pop-ups and I submitted my idea to them. They received over 100 applications and ultimately chose five vendors,” said Ron. Unfortunately, the food hall closed after only five months, but, “It was a very positive experience and I got a chance to test my recipes and flavors.”

After the success of the pop-up, Ron felt ready to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. He lives in Oak Park with his family and wanted something close to home, so after looking at surrounding cities, he landed on the former District Kitchen & Tap space on Harrison. Ron felt fortunate that the space needed a minimal build-out. Most of the work was cosmetic and included a redesigned flow and updated bathrooms.

One major addition is a custom mural created by Chicago artist Alecks Cruz who already has several mini-murals in Oak Park along the retaining wall that runs between North and South Boulevards. “Alecks was referred to me by a friend. We met and discussed Taco Mucho—the food, the culture, and the family vibe that I wanted. He took our conversation and combined it with his incredible talent to create the mural,” said Ron.

Currently, the restaurant is operating with counter service, but Ron plans to offer full service soon. “We want to be a casual, neighborhood taqueria—a place parents can bring their kids and a casual date-night spot with great food and cocktails. We see Taco Mucho as an extension of our home and want you to feel like a guest when you come in to eat.”

All the food is freshly-made and locally-sourced when possible. The current menu is focused on tacos and the most popular item is the carne asada. “I wanted to give our customers a steak taco like they’ve never had. I bring in whole ribeye roasts and break them down before marinating and tenderizing the meat. I sear the meat on the grill before serving and I serve it fresh on handmade corn tortillas with a simple onion and cilantro garnish.” Other menu items include chips and guacamole, churros with a dark chocolate dipping sauce, and margaritas.

The biggest obstacle facing the restaurant right now is the staffing shortage affecting the entire industry. “I’m staying positive about the whole situation and running a limited menu and hours until we are fully staffed. We plan to open for brunch soon and delivery service will be starting up shortly,” said Ron.

The return of a Mexican restaurant to the Arts District has garnered an enthusiastic response from the community. “Our grand opening was on August 21 and I was completely overcome with emotion that day. It was basically an hours-long party that included a mariachi band, food and beverage tastings, and live mural painting. We sold over a thousand tacos and were out of everything by 7pm.”

For Ron, the best part of the new venture is being able to work with his wife Zintia and sons Aidan and Eddie. “My wife is a frontline hero working as a full-time nurse. Most days after her shift, she heads to Taco Mucho to help out along with my sons. We’ve also been blessed to receive so much support from our extended families.”

“The Arts District is such a warm, welcoming community,” said Ron, “And I’m just excited to bring the great flavors of Mexican street food to Oak Park.”

Visit Taco Mucho at 220 Harrison Street or online at www.tacomucho.net. Current hours are Tuesday-Thursday from 5pm-9pm, Friday from 4pm-9pm, and Saturday from 12pm-9pm. They are closed Sunday and Monday.

Barrie Fest!!!

Barrie Fest!!!

By Kelly Pollock, feature writer for The Buzz Cafe

On Saturday, September 11, from 12pm-5pm, the 17th annual BarrieFest will take place in Barrie Park at 1011 S. Lombard Avenue, just across the Eisenhower Bridge from the Oak Parks Arts District.

First celebrated in 2005 when Barrie Park reopened after being closed for several years for environmental remediation, BarrieFest is sponsored by the South East Oak Park Community Organization (SEOPCO), a group that was founded to give neighbors a voice and make sure they were being treated fairly during the remediation. Today the event has two purposes: to provide a family-focused festival for the residents of southeast Oak Park and to offer all Oak Parkers a chance to experience the unique neighborhood.

Some of this year’s free activities include a climbing wall and inflatable obstacle course, information booths from local businesses and organizations, and bicycle repair from Wheel & Sprocket. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11, the Fire Department plans a flag raising at 12:30.

In 2020, COVID-19 forced organizers to get creative. “We partnered with Fitzgerald’s last year to sponsor their Community Truck that brought live performances to seventeen different locations in our neighborhood (masked and socially distanced). It was very different from what we usually do,” said Jim Peterson, SEOPCO treasurer. Although it was different, the truck was a success, and Fitzgerald’s will be back this year providing live music in the neighborhood from 11:00-12:30 and in the park from 12:30-2:00.

New to BarrieFest is a partnership with Takeout 25, an initiative launched in November by Oak Parker Ravi Parakkat. Ravi wanted to support local restaurants during the pandemic and envisioned 10,000 Oak Park residents each spending $25 per week on takeout equating to $1 million in monthly revenue. Divided by the 100 restaurants in Oak Park, the “Carry Out to Carry On” pledge aimed to provide $10,000 in monthly revenue to help each restaurant survive. To date, almost 9,000 people have joined the Takeout 25 Facebook group and not a single restaurant in Oak Park permanently closed due to the pandemic.

BarrieFest will mark the launch of Takeout 25 as an official non-profit. “Takeout 25 saved local businesses and jobs. These results prompted me to talk to local business owners about the future of Takeout 25 and the consensus was an expanded mission that included addressing food insecurity and sustainability of food systems while strengthening the local economy and community. We quickly determined that the best way to achieve the optimal impact was to organize as a non-profit,” said Ravi.

Nine local restaurants will participate in the event including Oak Park Arts District favorites Mora Oak Park and The Happy Apple Pie Shop. Ticket booklets cost $25 and include three $8 food tickets with the additional dollar donated to Beyond Hunger in support of Hunger Action Month. All food options will be priced at $8 and tickets can be used at any participating vendor. Tickets can be purchased on the day of the event but advance sales are encouraged to facilitate planning. To pre-purchase tickets, visit Takeout 25’s new website at www.takeout25.org.

BarrieFest organizers are excited to be back in Barrie Park with most of the traditional elements of the event returning. Said SEOPCO co-chair Stuart Barnes Jamieson, “It is time for this close-knit community to come back together to celebrate our identity as one of Oak Park’s most diverse neighborhoods. With the new partnership with Takeout 25 for food, and the second year of our partnership with Fitzgerald’s for entertainment, we expect this year’s BarrieFest to be better than ever.”

For more information about BarrieFest, visit www.facebook.com/seopco.

Going With the Flow at INTUIT Dance

Going With the Flow at INTUIT Dance

By Kelly Pollock, feature writer for The Buzz Cafe

When Diane VanDerhei founded INTUIT Dance! in 2004, her goal was to develop lifelong lovers of dance and to involve her students in the full creative process. She never imagined a global pandemic and the adaptations that it would require, but in March 2020, when COVID-19 shut down Oak Park and the rest of Illinois, the teachers and students at INTUIT did what they always do: got creative and made the best of the situation. “We had to turn on a dime and not miss a beat during the pandemic. I stress problem-solving in choreography class so I had to live up to my philosophy and figure it out instead of freaking out. The kids started using FaceTime during classes and that led me to videotaping classes and then Zooming,” said Diane.

Having taught at INTUIT for several years and having choreographed the Oak Park and River Forest High School musicals since 2017, Connor Cornelius, like the dancers at INTUIT, is used to creative solutions. “Our students are always adapting and learning about dance in different ways beyond traditional technique classes. They are used to being open-minded so transitioning to films and other new solutions in the classroom was smooth.”

For teacher Sage Miller, the pandemic offered a unique opportunity to reconnect with INTUIT. “I had taught at INTUIT before, but last summer when I was living in New York, I got in touch with Diane and and started teaching again via Zoom.” She has since relocated to the Oak Park area and spent the spring teaching in the studio. “Teaching online and hybrid teaching were challenging, but it also inspired me. It involved lots of patience from both us, the teachers, and from our students. I was amazed by their commitment and creativity.”

After more than a year of Zoom and hybrid classes including two virtual performances, INTUIT students from preschool to high school were finally able to dance in front of a live audience on May 22 on the campus of Dominican University in River Forest. “Spring Carousel of Dance” was in four parts including the classical ballet “Les Sylphides” by Chopin, contemporary dances set to music by King Sunny Ade, and the number “It’s Time to Dance” from Broadway musical “The Prom.”

To comply with public health guidelines, the performances were outdoors and the audience was limited. “I loved that the outdoor recital built a sense of community. There was no fourth wall, no separation between the dancers and the audience. Dancers could see the audience react to their dancing in the moment and audience members could rejoice together. We could feel the energy and positivity which was something we all needed,” said Connor. Added Diane, “I loved the outdoor setting. It was something I had been thinking about even before the pandemic. The setting, the costumes, and the choreography were a lovely combination. The audience was so ready for a live performance and that contributed to the success of the event.”

The day also marked an opportunity to celebrate graduating seniors Mira Mundt and Julia Patston. “Mira has been an important part of our musical theater program the last few years and Julia has been dancing with us since she was in preschool,” said Diane. “They will both be missed.”

Throughout the pandemic, Diane was careful to comply with all public health guidelines. But by keeping classes small, and ensuring that dancers were masked and socially distanced, in-person classes were a possibility at different times in the last year. For Julia, her time at the studio was one of her only in-person connections. “School was fully remote until February so dancing at INTUIT was just about the only way we had to spend time with friends for much of the pandemic. We felt safe there with temperatures being taken, masks being worn, and hand sanitizer being used. I am so thankful we had the chance to dance together.”

INTUIT Dance! is located at 237 Harrison Street in the Oak Park Arts District. The four-week summer session begins June 5 and one-week workshops are offered in July and August. For more information, visit www.intuitdance.org.