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Meet Aileen Castro: Photographer, printmaker, and digital illustrator

Updated: Nov 15, 2018

"Marwen has done so much for me. Honestly, without Marwen, I probably wouldn't be going to college, and I wouldn't feel like I could take art as a career. I probably would've been stuck not knowing what to do."

When 17-year-old Aileen Castro learned she could turn her passion for art into a career, she began to make big decisions. But those decisions weren’t easy.

During her junior year at Curie Metropolitan High School, Aileen decided she was going to leave for the remaining year-and-a-half and obtain her General Educational Development (GED) diploma instead.

“I was really scared when I had dropped out of school because I thought that would be it for Marwen. I didn't know if Marwen was going to judge me [for] it,” Aileen said. “But all the staff at Marwen have been wonderful. They're just happy that I'm here. It's just nice to not have people look at you and say 'she might not make it.' It's nice to feel like I'm welcome here.”

Lisa Lindvay, teaching artist and Assistant Manager of Studio Programs & Digital Learning at Marwen, was one of those staff members who helped Aileen.

“When she had told us [about leaving high school], she kept saying 'drop out' and I told her: you're not dropping out, you got a degree, and you should be proud of yourself,” Lisa said. “Just recognizing her talent and realizing she's one of the first people in her family to go to college, it was important for us to know she was going through this transition really early, so we [needed] the resources to talk about college options and to keep being a safe space for her.”

Aileen said it was important for her to gain that support from Marwen, because it’s been her second home since she was a sixth grader at Ruben Salazar Elementary Bilingual Center.

“When I started at Marwen, I wasn't a good kid. I was going through a lot of stuff, ” Aileen said. “Marwen and art in general really helped me get a distraction. And I feel like that's good for kids my age, especially since we think a lot of people aren't there for us and we feel so alone sometimes.”

With college being her number one priority, Aileen sought Marwen’s College, Career, & Alumni program for resources and opportunities. In 2017, Aileen was selected to participate in Marwen’s career development program Art at Work, through which she interned at Spudnik Press, a community-based art center that provides printmaking facilities and services to artists. Aileen recently shared how inspired she was by her supervisor who founded the company and how she valued her experience so much at Spudnik that she’s interning there again this fall.

“[The staff at Spudnik Press] were really happy that I wanted to come back and stay with them until I leave [for college],” Aileen said. “Just getting more information on how a business like that works, it's really going to help me in college.”

This year, Aileen participated in Marwen’s Design to Print program, where students are paid to create artwork for holiday and greeting cards to sell to benefit Marwen programs and learn the business side of design.

Also this year, during Marwen’s Spring Break college visits, Aileen found where she’d spend her next four years: the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. She will attend there starting in spring 2019.

“I picked Milwaukee because it doesn't have that classroom feel, it felt like a studio space instead,” Aileen said.

Aileen is still working closely with Marwen’s College, Career, & Alumni team as she seeks financial aid and applies for scholarships. She said the process has been stressful, but her mom has been her biggest support through it all.

“With trying to scramble for some money to pay off college, I do think sometimes 'what if I did stay?’ I could've just [gone] to a city college,” Aileen said. “But my mom has been really there for me and has said that since this is what I want to do and go to Milwaukee, then I should do it.”

Aileen said she recognizes how much her mother has been working to save up for college. On her own, Aileen has been selling some of her art to her friends. And on November 2, Aileen sold her artwork to a much larger crowd as part of Marwen’s Art Fair, an annual exhibition and art auction that attracted nearly 400 guests this year and presented three floors full of artwork by Marwen students, teaching artists, alumni, and staff.

Aileen sold all 10 of her pieces. With half of the proceeds going to the artist, Aileen said the money from her sold work will help her save for college.

“I really liked how that whole experience is perfect for people our age who are able to sell their work, especially if you're trying to make it as an artist. It's pretty hard to sell your artwork, but it's nice to make money off of something you did,” Aileen said. “It's a confidence booster. It tells you someone liked it and not only wanted [it], but bought it. That's awesome to have that realization that you're actually good.”

Four of the ten pieces Aileen sold were photographs she created last year in Marwen Lab, an immersion program designed for Marwen students interested in exploring their own work outside of courses. During the program, students work closely with teaching artists on independently-driven projects and engage in peer-to-peer critiques.

According to Lisa, Aileen began researching and pulling pictures of abandoned homes to convey that home is a place where one finds comfort. From there, she selected photographs of landscapes and found specific domestic miniatures to photograph alongside the landscapes.

“They became these really lovely and whimsical fantasies that she created by taking two images of a landscape and mirrored them to make the objects look like they’re falling or floating,” Lisa said. “They look like they're photoshopped, but they're actually all done physically on a table top.”

It was during Lab that Lisa said she noticed Aileen grow the most as an artist.

“She first came in a little unsure about what she wanted to do, but then she really invested time in thinking about concepts and how art can mean something in social issues that she and so many people in Chicago can relate to,” Lisa said. “She was really confident in her ability to talk to about her work, which was a really powerful thing to see as an educator.”

Despite these accomplishments, becoming close to staff like Lisa is what Aileen said she reflects on the most during her last term at Marwen.

“When I first started at Marwen, my social skills were terrible. You probably wouldn’t had seen me until class started,” Aileen said. “But being so close to staff [and] just having that other home where I could definitely come to, I didn’t expect that.”

That achievement came just in time as she prepared her 11-year-old brother, David Gonzalez, for his first term at Marwen this fall. He was inspired by Aileen’s experiences at Marwen.

“Two years ago, I was cleaning my room and I gave him my sketchbook that I had and I never finished it. He started drawing in it — superheroes and comic book stuff — and he liked it,” Aileen said. “I think just how I'm always at Marwen and he sees all the good stuff I make, he wanted to be a part of it too.”

Aileen has been been giving David some helpful advice.

“He was for sure nervous, and I told him that he shouldn't be. I feel like there was a point that he felt everyone else was going to be better than him [at art], and I totally have been through that multiple times,” Aileen said. “I just tell him everyone has something they're good at, and you're going to find what you're good at.”

Her little brother means the world to her.

“He's been helping me be someone better. I feel like with him, I have to be someone,” Aileen said. “Since it's just me, my mom, and him, I always have to be a sister and show him that I’m here, too.”

He even inspires the digital illustrations Aileen creates, which she describes as being cartoon-like. She sold six of those digital illustrations at Art Fair.

“Some of the style is just from my brother, so like robots or like weird things eleven-year-olds like,” Aileen said. “I used to watch a lot of cartoons, especially with my brother. And I just think it's simpler to draw and more fun, because it's like its own little world.”

With a piece of her still at Marwen, even after she leaves for college, Aileen said she and her family are thankful for their time here.

“My mom absolutely loves Marwen, because it helped me a lot during my times when I wasn't my best. And now [helping me] go to college, and hopefully help my brother go to college, too.”

Interested in helping create more opportunities for young artists like Aileen? When you contribute to Marwen, you provide support to Chicago's creative youth through free visual arts courses and college and career development programs. Give a gift.

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