Colum Alum Spotlight: Wabash Arts Corridor Welcomes Three Alumni Artists

This year, three alumni muralists will add their work to the South Loop’s living urban canvas. We caught up with Don’t Fret ’10, Ruben Aguirre ’02 and Justus Roe MFA ’08 as they kick off their WAC Big Walls projects.

A blue volcano spewing green slime. A wall of mysterious hieroglyphs. A moose blowing bubblegum. Wherever you look on the Wabash Arts Corridor (WAC), the South Loop's ever-growing street art hub, you'll find something unexpected. This year, the WAC Big Walls program invites 10 local and internationally renowned street artists to install large-scale murals. Running May 1-13, the two-week showcase includes guided tours, chalk art, multimedia presentations and a celebration culminating with Manifest Urban Arts Festival. Best of all, three of the featured artists graduated right here at Columbia College Chicago. We caught up with Don’t Fret ’10, Ruben Aguirre ’02 and Justus Roe MFA ’08 before their WAC reveals.

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Don’t Fret

Don’t Fret’s ’10 wheat paste posters and giant murals spread across Chicago in his signature cartoon style. The anonymous artist (named The Chicago Reader’s 2014 Street Artist of the Year) uses the entire city as his gallery.

What originally interested you in street art?

I was interested in how the street can be used to communicate ideas and be a vehicle for expression. And I liked the freedom of it. I don't find my work antagonizing, at least not in the sense that some people are antagonized by more traditional graffiti, but I think it’s funny that someone might respond poorly to the work simply because its placement on the street wasn't authorized. Of course, these days I do paint authorized murals as well, but it has been important to me to understand the differences between authorized and unauthorized work. 

Which Columbia professors influenced you?

[Photography professor] Elizabeth Ernst was a mentor to me in a really volatile time in my work. I loved art school, and I loved photography, but I felt like the work I wanted to make wasn't fitting in with what other students were doing. I would bring mixed media work to photo critiques and no one really knew what to say. Elizabeth really encouraged me to challenge myself with painting, and to take other courses at Columbia like printmaking and sculpture that definitely impacted the way I approach working today.

Why do you choose to stay anonymous in your work?

In the beginning, it was pretty simple: I didn't want to get caught. As my work has grown, it became important to me that the work lives its own life separate from me, and that it becomes about the work, and not about my life or who I am.

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Ruben Aguirre

Ruben Aguirre's ’02 colorful abstract murals can be found across the U.S., Mexico, Brazil and, of course, Chicago. Aguirre uses spray paint to interact with architecture and public space while also incorporating ideas from contemporary Latino muralism.

What originally interested you in street art?

If we're getting technical, I actually identify as a graffiti writer who now makes contemporary abstract murals. Graffiti pulled me in while I was in high school. The visual language, the exploration, the instant gratification, the camaraderie, all of it. It was the creative focus for me for at least 15 years.

What inspired your piece for the Wabash Arts Corridor?

The piece is inspired by the space that it's in, which is the parking garage and ramp structure. All of my pieces are typically informed by the space where they are located—integrating color and form with existing planes and textures. I'm trying to manipulate the space by using what's already there and adding some color.

Why do you choose to work in abstract spaces and patterns?

The forms are a loose organic form of my expression, but also give life and color to buildings, walls and neighborhoods that may not have much public art happening. It revives what would otherwise be a concrete structure that people just walk past. Painting graffiti made me look at public spaces and buildings a lot closer. Seeing all the brown buff marks from the graffiti blasters has been really depressing to me. If I can do the opposite, and add some color where I can, then I feel like I'm making a small contribution to the public.

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Justus Roe

Justus Roe's MFA ’08 colorful contemporary murals brighten underpasses and building walls all over Chicago. His abstract work references architecture and the city grid system, and his style often suggests aerial perspectives of urban landscapes.

What originally interested you in street art?

Originally, graffiti and abstract painting interested me. Luckily, I caught the second wave of graffiti in Chicago and the tail end of the New York subway graffiti movement in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Not unlike many artists—street, graffiti, gallery, academic or otherwise—exposure to some of the more iconic documentations of graffiti through books like Subway Art, Spraycan Art and the movie Style Wars had a major impact on my art practice. Also, fortunately, my very progressive and loving parents supported this interest early on without hesitation.

What does it mean to you to be featured in the Wabash Arts Corridor?

Having a piece this large and prominent in the Wabash Arts Corridor, visible from State Street [and the El lines], is monumental for me. It is something I have been fantasizing about and working toward for the past 25 years. I am beyond privileged to be included in the group of artists that have work up in the Wabash Arts Corridor. The city is very fortunate to have this world-class public gallery of artwork.

What does the Wabash Arts Corridor bring to the city as a whole?

The Wabash Arts Corridor brings an innovative vitality to the whole South Loop. It is definitely an outward expression of what is happening at Columbia. It is also becoming a premiere venue to showcase local and international big wall artists. Much like the 16th Street corridor in Pilsen, it is continuing to become a destination [for seeing] this kind of work. For the city as a whole, it is legitimizing and highlighting some amazing Chicago artists and the work that they have been putting in for decades.

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