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A tale of two artists on one block of Cherokee Street

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 9, 2010 - The 2300 block of Cherokee Street is defined by its blend of locally owned shops -- Mama's Tattoos, Shanta's Closet and Treasure Trove vintage clothing store. Grace Hill has a neighborhood health center in this historic section of Antique Row. In an empty storefront, a sign promises "Coming soon: record store."

Anchoring this block, which intersects with Jefferson Avenue, are two arts spaces located inside stately brick buildings. One is Boots Contemporary Arts Space; the other PHD Gallery.

The owners of both spaces grew up in St. Louis, left town and eventually returned. Both came to the Cherokee-Lemp Historic District at around the same time. They have seen the arts scene grow and the neighborhood fight through the recession.

To hear Boots' Juan William Chavez and PHD's Philip Hitchcock reflect on their experiences is to learn important lessons about what it's like to be on different ends of the art world and invested in a neighborhood that's still largely in flux. 


Chavez, 32, is like many visual artists who grew up in St. Louis. He left town for school, started his career elsewhere and didn't see many places to display his artwork back home.

"While I was growing up and when I looked at the city from the outside, I wasn't finding the type of support for young emerging artists," Chavez said. "St. Louis has great art institutions, like the museums, but in terms of an arts community, there was something lacking."

Chavez is unlike many artists because he decided to return. He has since made it his mission to give emerging and mid-career artists and curators a place to showcase their work and get exposure that might translate into future exhibits.

As director of Boots Contemporary Arts Space, Chavez has also been able to concentrate on bringing new people into a part of the city that's long been known primarily for its antique shops.

Chavez's involvement in both the south St. Louis community and the broader artistic community earned him a spot on a recent panel assembled by the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Held in conjunction with the Pulitzer's Gordon Matta-Clark exhibit, the discussion focused on how alternative art spaces like Chavez's can empower individuals and benefit neighborhoods.

"When artists come into a neighborhood, they aren't just there to attract business but hopefully to strengthen the fabric of the community," said Lisa Harper Chang, manager of community engagement with the Pulitzer. Chavez "has played an instrumental role in furthering the development of Cherokee Street. And what gallery spaces like his do are give an opportunity for young artists, whose choices for places to show are limited. When he brings in artists, he puts them on the radar for us."

For Chavez, it's been a long road back to St. Louis. Born in Lima, Peru, he moved here with his family when he was young. He started college in St. Louis, transferred to the Kansas City Art Institute, spent a year living in Lima and then earned his master in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Drawn by the strong arts scene, Chavez stayed in Chicago after graduation and started drawing live events. He became interested in producing three-dimensional works and experimenting with mixed media.

Chavez kept on the lookout for places to show his work in St. Louis. He found that in the Contemporary Art Museum. Chavez was a winner of the museum's Great Rivers Biennial competition in 2008, which allowed him to create a large piece -- 175 drawings that together formed storyboards from epic scenes from the film "A Clockwork Orange." The installation also included film chairs placed back to back in a room where clips from the movie played.

Attracted by "the existing artist-run spaces and the spark of energy" on Cherokee Street, Chavez set down roots in the south St. Louis neighborhood. His parents bought and rehabbed a building, and he moved in upstairs. Chavez said he noticed boarded-up storefronts all around him when he first moved in.

Minerva Lopez, past president of the Cherokee Station Business Association, described the neighborhood as one that has been developing over the last two decades.

"Juan rehabbed a property in an already developed area," she said in an e-mail. "There could have been a lack of interest in developing the properties (near Boots) ... because of their proximity to the Cherokee West side. The economy played a big role in investors wanting to take advantage of buying affordable properties to rehab. Juan came in at the right time."

In 2006, along with two friends, Chavez co-founded Boots, which is named to honor the Polish immigrant cobbler whose shoe shop once occupied the building.

Chavez said he didn't want to replicate other art spaces located nearby. He found his niche hosting installations, performers and other artists who want to experiment with their work. Boots, now a nonprofit, has five exhibits a year -- two that highlight St. Louis artists and the rest that attract artists from outside the region and outside the country. Boots' international artist-in-residence program has welcomed visitors from Turkey, Greece, Germany and Mexico who stay in St. Louis and create a new piece.

In between shows, when the space inside is being transformed, Boots opens its front windows on the ground floor to artists looking to get their name out.

"Right away we knew that we had to be a spot where these emerging artists could display their work," Chavez said.

Elizabeth Ramirez Ferry, a young artist who more than a year ago displayed her installation called "Dazed and Confused" as part of a local artist showcase at Boots called "Slinger 2," said she is glad to see a space that is open to emerging artists. "It does help to circulate fresh air throughout the Midwest, and the photos taken from this show led to other shows and helped me branch out."

Chavez splits his time between Boots and a studio he rents a few blocks away where he paints, sketches and coordinates upcoming shows. (He has exhibited his work both nationally and internationally.)

The walk down Cherokee Street gives Chavez a chance to take stock of the changes taking place in the neighborhood and his role in its development.

"The neighborhood has completely turned around -- it's an alternative arts district that is healthy and isn't going anywhere," Chavez said. "When people ask what my interaction is with the community, I say that I opened my door and gave a spot for artists to come and interact with others, and to create work. Cultural activity is contagious."


The level of activity on the block isn't enough to satisfy Hitchcock, owner of PHD Gallery.

"The problem, like in the rest of the city, is that there are still too many vacancies," Hitchcock (right) said. "They preclude events like art walks from taking place, because the blocks are still too disjointed. The growth in this area is never fast enough for me."

Such is the sense of urgency that comes with running a commercial gallery that relies upon heavy foot traffic and big spenders.

Hitchcock came across many affluent art collectors during his time in Los Angeles, where he went to school and showed his life-size sculptures at galleries across the city. (He recently completed a portrait bust of Richard A. Chaifetz that's on display at Chaifetz Arena.)

As he was showing his work at galleries, Hitchcock began to think about what it would be like to own his own art space. He decided to return to his hometown and bought into the Cherokee Street building in 2007.

"At the time, it felt like many parts of the city already were going in a clear direction -- the Loop, the Central West End, Washington Avenue," Hitchcock said. "I thought Cherokee a chance to make a real footprint and signal a new identity, and I'd like to think I've been a part of the art scene blossoming here."

Cole Root, exhibitions manager and registrar at the Contemporary and an independent curator who has had shows at Boots and nearby Snowflake art space, said he considers Boots and neighboring PHD Gallery “two anchors in the middle of Cherokee Street.”

Root moved last fall to Cherokee Street and lives three blocks away from the two art spaces, just west of Jefferson Avenue. He is looking to use his apartment to display his curated collections of art.

Root said he views the blocks east of Jefferson Avenue as the "fancier side" of the neighborhood. "It's a lot more developed and sustained. The storefronts change, but there seem to always be someone in them," Root said. "I imagine in the next few years that everything on our street will be full --there's so much rehabbing going on right now.

"The area is such an attractive place for artists," Root added. "I like to think of it as our Brooklyn."

David Early, who co-owns and operates Snowflake on Cherokee Street, said Boots and PHD, along with other galleries, have "solidified the idea that [Cherokee Street] is an arts-type area." He credits the owners with bringing in new people to the neighborhood, showing the work of non-St. Louis-based artists and also bringing the neighborhood more "mainstream recognition."

Lopez, the business association past president who owns a soccer apparel store and runs El Centro Cultural de Mexico, agrees that Cherokee Street is "establishing itself as an art hub" but has "always been an artsy neighborhood" featuring murals that illustrate the artistic sensibilities of its Latino residents.

PHD showcases mostly regional and national painters, photographers and sculptors. Hitchcock said he also likes to display ceramic pieces and collages.

His spring show, "The Birds & the Bees," opens March 13 and features painting and glass sculpture.

Hitchcock said he's found no shortage of local talent from which to choose. The challenge, as he explains it, is to show work that will not just attract large audiences but that also is commercially viable.

And like many other business owners, the financial downturn has hit the gallery hard. Hitchcock said much of the last year has been "fastening my seatbelt for the bumpy ride." He said his target audience -- art collectors with discretionary income -- has reined in spending and often held back on making big purchases during a time of economic uncertainty.

Still, Hitchcock said he has no regrets about moving to the neighborhood and views it as a long-term investment. He is pushing for more arts venues to open nearby and wants to see more night life on the street so that people who attend gallery openings can stay in the neighborhood. Early said he agrees that venues that stay open late can be a starting point to attract more residents and eventually more retail stores, which have to compete with larger stores in areas that have more foot traffic.

Hitchcock said he continues to see businesses come and go around him, which is to him an indication that there needs to be more coordination among the owners.

"For so long there's been an every man for himself notion around here, but what's good for the street is good for the individual," he said.

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