Neenah Vargas, left, helps her grandmother, Cheryl Vargas, with painting kits at Studio 928 on Lombard Avenue in the Oak Park Arts District. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

It’s rich with originality. From the title Creator in Chief to Virtual Fiber Fun Nights, the Oak Park Arts District (OPAD) oozes with artistic acumen and a dose of charm. 

What makes it so is the variety of businesses and its owners, mostly women and many Black. OPAD runs along Harrison Street from Austin to Ridgeland and includes Lombard south of Harrison too. 

For Marcia Brown-Jackson, going into business seven years ago in the Arts District was an easy decision. She lived nearby with her family, so it was close to her children’s school and her home. 

“I always loved the feel of area – it’s just cozy,” she said. “It has a small neighborhood feel and a different kind of customer service that’s personal.” 

Brown-Jackson’s business is Studio 144 Boutique at 144 Harrison. She carries bath and body products, clothing, jewelry and purses and offers a personal shopping experience to her customers. She also has “vinyl expressions,” paintings with inspirational sayings that she creates. Before quarantine, she would hold group painting sessions. When COVID-19 shut down her business, she readied items for curbside pickup such as hand sanitizer and masks. Now open, she can accommodate two customers at a time.   

Brown-Jackson, who is on the OPAD Business Association board, said she tells other potential business owners to have a following first because it is not a high-traffic area. 

Chastity Dunlap had a store in Downtown Oak Park where she started Dye Hard Yarns two and a half years ago before coming to OPAD. She learned to knit more than a dozen years ago, quickly advanced and acquired a skill to fix knitting mistakes, helpful when working with customers. 

“I really love helping people,” Dunlap said. “Knitting is very meditative for me in general, whether I’m knitting or teaching someone to knit, and I love being able to impart that experience on them because we’re all kind of stressed out on a daily basis.” 

Now, Dunlap feels like she is “with the arts people” and has a larger space at 210 Harrison St., which includes room to accommodate a community dye studio for those learning the craft and for other dye artisans. 

When Dunlap moved into her new store in November 2019, she said she found everyone to be supportive from the time she arrived.

“People would wave at me and smile at me and give me a thumbs up and say, ‘Hey, I’m just your neighbor down the street,’ or ‘I own this business over here. I just want to welcome you to the area,'” she said. “It was not something I got when I opened in DTOP. It really made me feel at home, so it was special.”

Not willing to let quarantine shut her business down, she converted her weekly Fiber Fun Nights, held on Wednesdays, to Zoom. She also began offering a concierge shopping service where she could take a shopper through the store by video conference. A new offering is a Virtual Queer Stitch on Sundays. Dye Hard Yarns is now open, by appointment only, allowing one customer at a time. 

Cheryl Vargas, Creator in Chief of Art Studio 928, had an existing business since 2018, hosting paint events locally at Hamburger Mary’s and doing private, mobile paint parties. She wanted to offer her service more regularly and opened a studio at 911 S. Lombard in the Arts District in February 2020. The grand opening was March 14. 

Her business took off immediately and she said she was booked into June. Image choices range from birds and goldfish to African dancing women. She teaches brush techniques, color mixing, how to conserve supplies and how to grow as an artist. 

When the Shelter in Place order foiled her plans, she rolled out paint kits that could be picked up curbside and began working on videos for painters to follow along at home, something she already had in the works. She also holds a regular live Saturday paint session with 25 to 30 repeat customers. 

She lives by her tagline, “There’s always time for art.” 

“It does make you feel good,” Vargas said. “It is food for the soul. You feel like you’ve accomplished something and sometimes you even surprise yourself.”   

As upbeat as they remain, all three of these female Black business owners have faced challenges. 

While providing products during Shelter in Place and having partial reopening now, income is down for all of them. 

“I’ve lost quite a bit of business,” Dunlap said. “The issue with my particular type of store is that it’s very, very tactile.” She explained that when someone comes into a yarn shop, they may spend a long time, comparing colors, touching and even feeling yarns on their faces, and examine patterns.   

“I’ve been scrambling since day one of closure to make sure I can do everything possible, to apply for all the aide I’ve been able to find, to keep everything going,” Dunlap said. “I think we’re all basically running on hope, a ‘wing and a prayer,’ to try to get through this.”

Brown-Jackson, with her store on Harrison, felt a more imminent threat when looting was occurring along Roosevelt and Madison in Chicago. She removed everything from Studio 144 Boutique, and said she was “not going to chance anything.” She is still putting items, such as jewelry, back in place. 

Vargas is facing a frustration of a her own. 

As part of her business plan, she wants to have outdoor painting in the summer months. Now, with staying outdoors being a safer way to congregate due to the risks of COVID-19, this idea has become even more important to her business. 

She can host up to 10 people inside, but not many are showing up. So she applied for a sidewalk permit with the Village of Oak Park for painting outdoors in front of her studio. 

Art Studio 928 is in a row of businesses that include The Actors Garden, Musikgarten, Buzz Café and Mora Asian Kitchen on the corner. There is a section of parking spaces that has been cordoned off for Buzz and Mora restaurant customers. Three parking spaces remain near the front of Art Studio 928. 

The village turned down her request for a permit, siting that her business is not a restaurant, according to Vargas. She asked to appeal on June 11, but as of June 19 had not received a reply from the village. 

She had previously planned to hold “al fresco” painting in a green space behind her studio, but after she moved in, a garden group who shares the area erected fencing, which left an L-shape Vargas said is not conducive for leading group painting. 

“My plan totally got stepped on,” she said and expressed concern with her landlord’s handling of the situation. “It’s super important to revenue because people don’t want to come into my space,” Vargas said. “People are still afraid to go out and be in public spaces with other people.”

Brown-Jackson said she is testing the waters financially, but is optimistic that a turnaround is coming, hoping people shop small.  

She said her landlord is working with her on the rent. Dunlap would not say more than that her landlord has been kind.

“I’m staying here as long as I can,” Dunlap said in regard to keeping her business viable.  

“Having a place where people would want to come because I am part of the arts is just wonderful,” she said, “…especially when everything settles and we can safely be outside and around each other, I’m hoping I’m an attraction to the area and can help boost it.” 

Other Black-owned businesses in the Oak Park Arts District include artist Tia Etu and her Whatever Comes to Mind Studio and Davis Digital Services owned by Carolyn and Greg Davis. Etu created a poster so businesses in the district would have the same message regarding masks and hand washing when they opened. The Davis’ printed this poster and do other printing for the OPAD Busines Association. They do photography and digital design, too. 

Some other OPAD Black-owned businesses are Jamilla Yipp Photography, Awaken Your Spirit & Embrace Your Journey (massage, reiki, life coaching), Alabasta (salon, hair/body products),  Shearology (hair, makeup) and Textures & Tones Beauty Bar (hair salon). 

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