William Estrada: The People’s Art Teacher

credit: Photo by Yijun Pan

Artist, community art teacher and UIC professor William Estrada, 46, has taught art in the classroom and in public spaces for more than two decades, focusing on addressing inequality and historical passivity in marginalized communities. His Mobile Street Art Cart project fosters community by providing opportunities to create art in neighborhoods. His first solo exhibition, William Estrada: Multitudes and Multitudes, opened at Hyde Park Art Center in July.

I went to Marquette Elementary on the southwest side. We didn’t really have art, but my social studies or geography teacher, Mr. B, he would give us these coloring cards and I would spend a lot of time coloring them. One day he announced to the class, “There is an artist in the class. I want to show the work of this artist.” And he showed me the map I had colored. I was like, “Oh, I really, really love this.”

I worked very hard with my amazing art teacher, Mrs. Stallings, to have art at Gage Park High School. She took me to Jacob Lawrence in 1995 at the Chicago History Museum. We saw a number of his paintings from the Great Migration. I like. It was one of the first times I saw a person of color being celebrated as an artist.

But I still wasn’t convinced that I could be an artist. I thought art was something you did as a hobby. Then in my senior year, my art teacher asked me what my plans were for the future. I said to myself, “Well, I want to major in psychology.” She was puzzled by my answer. She says, “I thought you were going to be an artist?” And I’m like, “Ms. Stallings, you can’t be an artist. This is not a real job.” She had a serious talk with me. She was actually the one who told me, “You should apply to art school.” I sat down with my parents and said, “I’m going to be an artist.” I was a little nervous to talk to them about it, but they were extremely supportive. They were just very excited that I wanted to go to school. I was the first person in my family to go to college.

credit: Photo by Yijun Pan

I went to the School of the Art Institute [of Chicago] and received a bachelor’s degree and certificate in art education.

I decided that I would not teach in the public schools. I really wanted to work in community organizations because I was interested in talking about culture and race and power structures and poppy[ing] art for them or in response to it. I got this teaching artist gig [elementary school that infuses Mexican arts and culture into academics] Telpochcalli, I was there too – it will be 21 years.

I was having these really impactful, beautiful, complex conversations with students about representation, lack of access to resources, power structures, the law, school, and the purpose of school. They asked me really complicated questions that sometimes I didn’t have an answer to, like, “Why do people hate Mexicans?” or “Why do people hate migrants?” I was like, “I don’t know. Why do you think that?’ the same conversations with adults in the neighborhood, in Little Village. It was much more challenging.

At the same time that I started teaching at Telpochcalli, I was invited to the Little Village Arts Fest to do some workshops. This was the initial spark for many of the projects that over the years have become what they are now. I really wanted there to be art workshops on the sidewalk so there would be no barriers to people being curious about what we do. It was as if there was no question that their place was there because we were on the street and it is public space and belongs to everyone. When I started doing them in 2002, it happened sporadically, until 2014-2014, when I was like, “Okay, all the work I do, I want it to be more intentional.”

“When I was in school they said, ‘You shouldn’t call yourself a community artist, you should be an artist with a capital A.’ There was this hierarchy that I really struggled with. What I ended up doing is all the projects I wanted to do, I turned them into lessons that I did with students.”

The family portrait project was the first project where I was like, “Okay, I’m going to set up this mobile photo studio in the neighborhood and try to convince people to let me take a family portrait.” This project was really thinking about representation: Who can claim neighborhood, who gets to tell the stories of what’s going on in that community, how gentrification or displacement affects you or doesn’t? This was really the first time I moved my practice from the classroom to the neighborhood.

In 2015, 3Arts reached out to 3AP, which was a crowdfunded project of 3Arts. They said, “We have this platform, we really want to support your work. Is there a project we could help you promote?’

credit: Photo by Yijun Pan

I was like, “Yeah, I’ve been doing these folding table street workshops for a really long time. And people don’t understand exactly what I do. I want to build this art cart very similar to ice cream cart or food vendor mobile. I described it as this classroom on wheels. But it really focuses on making art as an organizing process of bringing people together. All the work I’ve wanted to do for so many years, the embodiment of the art cart, and I think it gives people a solid, concrete thing to look up to,”Oh, that’s what you do.”

For a long time I separated my teaching and my doing. For example, teaching and doing are very different and do not go together. When I was in school, they said, “You shouldn’t call yourself a community artist, you should be an artist with a capital A.” There was this hierarchy that I really struggled with. What I ended up doing is that all the projects I wanted to do, I turned them into lessons that I did with students.

“It’s all different work, but really it’s just different ways of talking to people. The thread is the teaching.”

I worked as a staff artist for ART (Resources for Art in Teaching). ART broke up in 2012. And I was like, “Okay, what do I do next?” I went to high school. I was a man with a mission. I said to myself, “I know why I teach in the neighborhood, I teach about race, power, analyzing historical passivity, analyzing history and how history is told, I know how to do these pieces.” What I don’t know the language for is: why these things should to exist in the world of art and in the making of art? I said to myself, “I want to get out of here so I can tell people why this is important and have this theoretical framework of what I’m doing, how it fits into the history of this work.”

I remember when we installed [“William Estrada: Multiples and Multitudes”]— exhibiting for the first time much of the work I’ve been doing for the past 18 years — was very emotional. It was very, very affirming and it was also this reminder [that]”Wow, I’ve been doing this job for a really long time.”

I mentioned the [curator] Mariela [Acuña], “These are all different jobs, but they’re really just different ways of talking to people. The thread is the teaching.” When people see it, not only do they get to see the real art, but it’s this reminder of all the amazing stories I get to hear.

I had a hard time living the name of the exhibition. I was like, “No, get rid of ‘William Estrada.’ Because none of this was created by me, by myself. There are so many other people who made this work possible.”

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