Women of Pilsen: Diana Solis

Diana Solis is a prominent figure among Chicana artists in the Midwest. She co-manages the local art center, Pilsen Outpost.

The following is an edited interview with Solis conducted by Chicago Voz staff writer Jackie Serrato during an art opening at Pilsen Outpost by Mujeres Mutantes. The exhibit will be on display through the end of March.

CV: Hola. Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Diana Solis. I’m an artist. I was born in Nuevo León, Monterrey, México, and I was raised in Pilsen. You could say I was practically born here since I was a little over a year old when I came. My parents immigrated here. My dad came first, and then my mom and I followed. My parents made this their home. The rest of my brothers and sisters were born here in Chicago.

CV: So do you identify as Mexicana, Chicana, Latina?

I identify myself as a Mexicana-Chicana because when I was in high school here in the 70’s I encountered the Chicano Movement and I joined the students who were identifying as Chicanos. And my father was a little upset with me because, he said, “You’re not a Chicana, you’re a Mexicana.” We’ve always been told we’re Mexicanos, but I felt like I belonged in two worlds.

CV: Given that the Chicano Movement was so male dominated, how did you fit in? Did you fit in?

A lot of us young women at the time were very interested not only in supporting our brothers and our boyfriends and husbands but we also in raising issues about la mujer and women’s consciousness and awareness. I remember there was a huge distaste on the part of a lot of men who said that it was a white women’s thing, that we didn’t need that. But we knew better, we knew that we were Chingonas, that we needed to really be Chingonas and take care of our own selves. And it was a struggle.

CV: I noticed the Chingona shirt when I walked into your shop. How did you come up with this space?

Three of us opened this shop: Pablo Ramirez, Teresa Magaña and myself. We are all Pilsenites, bred in Pilsen. We decided to come together as artists and form a collective known as POP because we were selling our work all over the city. We popped up everywhere, and we had similar ideas about having a store of our own. We started out selling our own work, then our artist friends were approaching us to sell some of their work. So we developed our ideas to have our own place and two years later we opened up the Pilsen Outpost. We focus on work that is what we call contemporary urban or urban contemporary art.

We give young and emerging artists a chance. People come in daily with their portfolios. One of our female artists created the Chingona shirt, proposed it to us and it keeps selling out! We’re not just a retail shop. We’re kind of like a community center and a gallery. We’re happy.

CV: When did you know you were an artist?

My interest was always the arts, but my parents, while supportive, wanted me to pick something that was a little more financially substantial. After my first year in college, I moved to Mexico and went to school at la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). I studied Latin American studies, literature, economics, but I really wanted to be an artist and not end up working at a bank or something like that. So I decided that I would follow that path. I became a photographer and came back to the States and got my degree in photography, a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois. After working as a staff and documentary photographer for newspapers and magazines for 15 years, I worked out of the country for a while in Europe.

At 40 I came back to the States, and I decided that I was finally going to get my degree in art. I slowly closed up a photography studio I had and I transitioned from photographer to painter. I never looked back. I’ve always loved painting. I always knew painters here in Chicago as well as in Mexico. I drew since I was a kid and painted since I was 6 years old. My parents encouraged us to study art, music, poetry, movies and they have supported me 100 percent.

CV: Tell me about your work.

My work is varied. I started out as an abstract painter, but I love animals and their relationship with humans and the planet, and I’ve developed whimsical and hybrid characters, almost comic like. A lot of that has to do with my childhood attraction for fairy tales, folklore, myth and really incredible stories. Later on, of course, I begin to look at the Latin American myths and the myths of other cultures and how they’re interconnected.

Living in Oaxaca and Mexico exposed me to a different kind of art that was very rooted in their indigenous past and the idea of animals involved in their livelihood and in their mythos. Those were my main influences.

Europe was great, but I didn’t want to be Leonardo Da Vinci, I didn’t want to paint like a Renaissance painter even though I thought it was important to know this history and these techniques.

I teach now. I’m a teaching artist at different schools and I’m also a lecturer at universities. I’m always showing my work and I’m currently exhibiting at Simone’s Bar with Pablo Serrano.

CV: What women inspired you?

My mom and her comadres (laughs). Also some of the women who were starting a feminist organization called Mujeres Latinas En Acción. My mom was a member of the food co-op and a community organizer. I was young when I joined them.

CV: What about Frida Kahlo?

I knew of her, but I never thought of her as a role model. This is the pre-Frida Kahlo-mania.

I personally don’t identify as a Fridiana, but I think it’s fine, I understand it. I think she’s incredibly important and I teach her in the schools. I’m doing a portraiture class called “Exploring Identity Through Portraiture” and, of course, Frida Kahlo is included but she’s not the only one.

I don’t think she’s over-rated, but I think she’s over-saturated with a lot of people. I think the women that consider themselves Chicanas, all of us need a role model, and there’s nothing wrong with having Frida Kahlo as someone who you can identify with, and see some of the things that she’s gone through and transpose them into your own particular life.

CV: Why did you choose 21st Street and Damen for the Pilsen Outpost?

Economically it was better for us than 18th Street. We did research and looked at places, but we kept moving along. Teresa and Pablo live close to here, and I live not far, and they kept seeing this empty storefront and eventually we checked it out. We loved it. We thought, “Hey, we’re not on 18th Street. We don’t have to be and we’re glad that we’re not. It’s so crowded over there. People will come to us.”

We’re an outpost of Pilsen. A place that’s on the fringe, on the west side of Pilsen. Where there’s not too many hipsters.

CV: What is the role of the artist of color in either facilitating or resisting gentrification?

Gentrification is here. We all know that. But I think that stores owned by people of color, if they’re conscientious, is also a way to not allow the gentrification to get to a point where you don’t have a voice. I think we’re fighting gentrification. I think we’re staking our claim as born and bred Latino artists in the community. We can do this, and we don’t have to depend on a hipster or someone from the outside to come in and do what we’re doing.

We have a lot of Mexican families living in this area and they’ll come up to us and say “What do you guys do? Oh, artesanía moderna.” The way we engage them is by telling them to please come in. We offer affordable and many family-oriented programming.

CV: Where in Pilsen are you from?

In the heart of Pilsen, between May and Carpenter on 19th Street. I went to Dvorak Park all my life, I went to Jane Addams Hull House before it became Casa Aztlán. I’m a child of the late 60’s and the 70’s. I did move away for many years, but then I came back. I decided to live here permanently, not because of the art scene or the changes that were happening or anything like that. I wanted to go back home, go back to Pilsen, and it’s the best thing I could’ve done.

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