The Run Down

If there was a word to describe this guide, it would be "appreciation." We're spending the afternoon at a museum that, for the past three decades, has allowed visitors to appreciate works from self-taught artists outside of the mainstream art community. In many cases, these artists often lived with mental illness or had other circumstances that kept them from pursuing a more traditional art career. Afterwards, we keep the on the same theme and head to a nearby nondescript bodega in the middle of a residential neighborhood. There's so much more to this bodega than meets the eye and we step inside to find out what makes this place special.

1. Art Appreciation @ Intuit

2. Taco Appreciation @ Taqueria El Jardin

1. Intuit: Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art

We begin at Intuit, a museum located along a heavily trafficked stretch of Milwaukee Ave. in the River West neighborhood.

If you haven’t already been before, you at least have passed it a number of times going between downtown and the Northwest neighborhoods. The museum has been in this same brick building for close to 30 years and it hides in plain sight as it blends in with the surrounding cityscape.

A few things to note as you plan your trip.

– Currently only open Friday and Saturday (11am – 5pm). Check their website for updates.
– Right next to the Chicago Blue Line stop.
– Advanced reservation for a timed-entry is required.
– $5 entry fee

The museum has two galleries with a combined 12,000 square feet of space. The first gallery you’ll enter has a rotating exhibition that includes artwork from a number of artists.

On display when we visited were works from  artists like Bill Traylor, an African-American artist who was born into slavery and didn’t begin making art until the age of 85. He died 10 years later in 1949, but during that time he had created over 1,500 pieces of art using found material, like discarded cardboard and brown paper bags to create a visual autobiography of events in his own life and observations of life in Montgomery, Alabama.

Move towards the back of the museum and it opens up to a second gallery space. This one showcased a temporary exhibit featuring art from George Widener, a high functioning savant whose mind is often described as a living super calculator. He incorporates his gift for numbers and instant recall of dates into his art.  In a small section in the corner of the second gallery, there’s a permanent exhibit featuring Henry Darger, perhaps the most famous Chicago “outsider” artist. His life’s story is tragic, but his art lives on in this exhibit.

Born in Chicago in 1892, he spent his entire life here. His parents died at at a young age and much of his childhood was spent in a state-run asylum for children. He eventually found a job as hospital janitor and over the next 40 years lived in a one room apartment in Lincoln Park. Inside that apartment he would go on to create a lifetime of drawings and illustrations for stories he’d write over the years. 

This exhibit is a re-creation of his apartment where his work was discovered by his landlords shortly before his death. Today and many years after his death, his artistry is one of the most recognized in the outsider art community. To give you an idea of his impact, a recent auction sold one of his pieces for over $600,000.

2. Taqueria El Jardin

After your trip to Intuit, a conversation about your favorite pieces of outsider art over a meal just might be what’s in store. Keeping along the same theme of this guide, head a few blocks away to a spot that deserves a lot more appreciation than it gets.

We’re at Taqueria El Jardin just a few blocks from Intuit. It’s nestled inside a residential neighborhood and sticks out as the only commercial building in this stretch of homes. From the outside, it looks like your typical neighborhood bodega, but in the back is a taco shop that can stand side by side with the best that Chicago has to offer.

Walk inside and you’ll navigate your way between two small aisles of your normal corner store items. But look behind the counter and you’ll see a large taco menu which is calling our names. Order at the counter which is overseen by a husband and wife operation who have been running the show for the past 15 years.

Make your way to the back after you order. There you’ll find a small eat-in area with a couple of tables. There are also some stools at a counter where you can sit and have a close up view of all the food being grilled behind a window partition. 

Here’s what you’ve been waiting for — food pics. This is their fried chicken dinner plate which comes with a side of rice, beans, tortillas and a grilled jalapeno for some extra kick. You pile all these components into your tortilla and you get a wonderfully balanced and flavorful bite.

Bang for your buck, this place needs to be in your taco shop rotation. As the saying goes, don’t judge a bodega by its cover.