Roman Villarreal captures the spirit of his community in the retrospective exhibition South Chicago Legacies

June 6, 2022

Roman Villarreal captures the spirit of his community in the retrospective exhibition South Chicago Legacies

Painting of five figures in colorful clothing and hats, with instruments and a microphone, set on a red background
Roman Villarreal (American, b. 1950). The Rainbow Lounge, 1970s. Acrylic on wood, 37 x 53 x 5 in. Courtesy of the Villarreal Family. Photo by Joseph “Fugie” Almanza.

Press preview: June 16, 2022, 1–5 p.m.
Exhibition on view: June 17, 2022–January 8, 2023

June 6, 2022—CHICAGO—Roman Villarreal: South Chicago Legacies, the first major retrospective exhibition of the work of artist Roman Villarreal, opens at Intuit to the public on Friday, June 17, with extended hours and free admission.

Throughout his artistic career, Villarreal has demonstrated mastery of materials: alabaster, marble, limestone, serpentine, lead and acrylic. South Chicago Legacies spans decades of his artistic practice, featuring works from the 1970s to the present day. The artist captures the spirit of his neighborhood of South Chicago in his art; subject matters range from urban tragedy and commemoration to family life and celebration to exploration of his Mexican heritage.

“Roman’s work reflects his lived experiences—from personal tragedies to joyful moments with family—and those of his community—the struggles and triumphs that followed the fall of the steel mill industry. He tackles complex subjects through creative experimentation and in a diversity of media,” said Alison Amick, chief curator at Intuit.

Born in The Bush neighborhood of Chicago in 1950, Villarreal is a self-taught artist with a decades-long body of work including sculpture, painting and assemblage. He demonstrated a strong interest in art from a young age, playing with putty and clay as a child. His mother recognized his talent and described him as a “shaper”—a nod to his future career as an established sculptor. Throughout his youth, Villarreal traveled between Chicago; Tampico, Mexico; and Corpus Christi and Benavides, Texas, to be with family and attend school. In the 1960s, Villarreal joined a gang before serving in the military during the Vietnam War. In training, Villarreal began to draw and sell his works to fellow soldiers, a practice that encouraged him to continue in the arts.

Following his time in the military, Villarreal returned to Chicago to work in the steel mills, where he began to make small sculptures using the materials he could find. The mills were the leading source of income for his community at this time; when they closed, Villarreal described it as a gray period. It was then he turned to art full-time, submitting pieces to exhibitions and researching art history. His rigorous dedication to his artistic practice resulted in several commissions. From Big Marsh to Palmer Square to Margate Park, sculptures by Villarreal are now found throughout Chicago, highlighting the city’s history. A sculpture of particular note is Tribute to the Past (2015) at Steelworkers Park in Chicago’s southeast side.

“Intuit was thrilled to be introduced to Roman Villarreal by board member William Swislow, who Roman connected with after reading about Bill’s keen interest in the lakefront revetment carvings. Roman was one of four artists who sculpted the renowned mermaid sculpture near Oakwood Beach along Lake Michigan,” said Intuit President and CEO Debra Kerr.

“Exhibiting the work of a living, self-taught artist from our own city creates myriad opportunities to engage audiences with Roman,” Kerr continued. “Already the museum’s Teacher Fellows visited Roman’s studio to learn about his artistic process. I know other groups will be equally intrigued by his enthusiasm and formidable artistic output.”

Roman Villarreal: South Chicago Legacies—curated by Amick—opens to the public with extended hours (11 a.m.–8 p.m.) on Friday, June 17, and free admission to guests of all ages all weekend long, Friday, June 17, through Sunday, June 19. Saturday and Sunday hours are 11 a.m.–6 p.m. In addition to its opening weekend festivities, Intuit will host a suite of accompanying public programs throughout the run of the exhibition, which closes Jan. 8, 2023.


Founded in 1991, Intuit is a premier museum of outsider and self-taught art, defined as work created by artists who faced marginalization, overcame personal odds to make their artwork, or who did not, or sometimes could not, follow a traditional path of art making, often using materials at hand to realize their artistic vision. By presenting a diversity of artistic voices, Intuit builds a bridge from art to audiences. The museum’s mission—to celebrate the power of outsider art—is grounded in the ethos that powerful art can be found in unexpected places and made by unexpected creators.

Intuit is open 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and by appointment on Tuesday and Wednesday. For more information, please visit Plan Your Visit.