Paint the Town Brown

For these Chicano artists, home is where the art is.

"I can't say enough," he says. "I don't want to say that I would have given up without them, but it's almost like that. CHAC keeps me moving forward. I feel very comfortable there. It's like a home."

Crystal O'Brien is a strawberry-blond Norwegian Swede with an addiction to Chicano art. In the late '90s, she was a regular at Jerry Lawson's Artes del Pueblo gallery on 47th Avenue. When the gallery closed, Lawson sent O'Brien to CHAC, which had just relocated to Santa Fe Drive. After she stopped in, Carlos Martinez refused to let her leave until she became a member and a volunteer.

Artist Alfredo Ortiz found that he fit right in at CHAC.
John Johnston
Artist Alfredo Ortiz found that he fit right in at CHAC.
Carlos Frésquez first displayed his signature "Zoot 
Suit in Los Rockies" at CHAC.
John Johnston
Carlos Frésquez first displayed his signature "Zoot Suit in Los Rockies" at CHAC.

And volunteer she did.

Using her background in sales, management and human resources, O'Brien developed media lists, press kits and publicity sheets. She spread the word, tried to expand the audience and "did whatever needed to be done," she remembers.

But by 1999, CHAC was again struggling. Administrators suggested closing the Santa Fe gallery -- the largest and most visible yet for the group -- and using a P.O. box for an address. O'Brien and other boardmembers refused. Instead, they opened their checkbooks and made the rent.

O'Brien took a year off from work and devoted herself to CHAC. She pestered founders to rejoin. She taught herself how to write grant proposals. She made presentations to corporations. She beat the bushes for new members. She pinched every penny. She grabbed anyone stopping by the gallery and put them to work.

"You'd better be willing to clean the toilets and mop the floors, because that's what it takes," says Carlos Martinez. "Everyone works."

And works for free. With CHAC's survival on the line, neither O'Brien nor anyone else receives a salary. And since there's no money for janitors, repairmen or caterers, artists and boardmembers alike bring casseroles to openings, hang art and patch nail holes.

"Every little bit helps," says O'Brien, herself a multimedia artist who is now CHAC's director and board chair. "Nothing gets done unless someone does it. Everyone is focused on CHAC's survival. Right now, we have to be."

CHAC has opened a gift shop offering original and imported art, which is also available on its Web site ( It has expanded themed events to include a heart show in February and saints and crosses in September, and showcased special exhibits, such as this summer's Spirit of Frida Kahlo. It has dispatched artists to schools and senior centers. It has held basement sales; it has placed tip jars at opening events. It has joined the Santa Fe Drive Arts Walk, which includes a number of more mainstream galleries that recently opened nearby.

Last year, CHAC's budget grew from $33,000 to about $60,000. The group boosted membership ($50 for artists, $60 for families) to 120, back to a level it enjoyed a decade ago. It won the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts.

But the turnaround hasn't come easy.

A few CHAC members wondered about O'Brien's motives. Others questioned her knowledge of art. A few grumbled about her ethnicity.

"CHAC had just come from a pretty dark place, so I had to prove my intentions were pure and my vision was the same as the organization's," says O'Brien. "Some people would meet me for the first time and their jaws would drop. I've always been curious and intrigued with Chicano art. I love and respect the culture. I just have a passion for CHAC that fuels me like nothing else. My family has a hard time getting me away from here."

That passion is what CHAC is all about, artists say.

"The people who are involved now are like the people who were involved initially," says Stevon Lucero. "It's an act of love."

Maruca Salazar agrees: "If you would have told me 25 years ago that the chair of CHAC would be an Anglo woman, I would have said you were crazy. But I've come to appreciate people as people: black, white, whatever. Chicanos have, too. That doesn't say they're changing political values; it says they've evolved. CHAC is doing what other art institutions should be doing: being inclusive."

Last year's San Patricios show is one example of CHAC's inclusiveness. Through painting, storytelling, poetry and dance, artists of all surnames honored the Irish conscripts who left the U.S. military during the Mexican-American War and joined with the Mexicans in a show of solidarity for oppressed people.

"We're building bridges," Jerry Lawson says.

A quarter-century after Lawson and other artists began building those bridges, CHAC still faces challenges. Arts funding has been slashed, while rents are rising on Santa Fe Drive. There are some founders who argue that with the high caliber of Chicano artists and the expanding Latino community in this state, CHAC should be "a multimillion-dollar institution" offering scholarships, programs and exhibitions. But the Museo de las Américas, just a block away from CHAC, tried to go global, and it's in deep financial trouble. CHAC may have kept its aspirations more modest, but its contributions are undeniable.

"It has provided opportunities for people at all levels of talent, particularly of color, to go somewhere and be welcomed instead of ridiculed," Carlos Martinez says. "It has also given a coating of legitimacy to things that were not understood by the mainstream. It has helped change the perception that Chicano art is not just folk art or lesser art."

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