Inthe heart of Peoria’s Warehouse District, a striking old building with a sleek, black awning looks out onto traffic at SW Adams and Pecan streets. Hanging over the fading brick façade, a distinctly contemporary sign entices visitors with three simple words: “ARTE,” “TEQUILA” and “TACOS.” This is the home of Casa de Arte (“House of Art”)—an art gallery, lounge and restaurant. Its owners, Arturo and Carla Vargas, work tirelessly to promote up-and-coming artists, while inviting the community to enjoy the rich Latinx food and culture they love so dearly.
Arturo and Carla’s story begins over 25 years ago in a small Mexican village three hours south of Guadalajara, capital of Jalisco. With just over 350 residents, El Tulillo is barely a dot on the map. “I like to compare Guadalajara to Chicago—and where we are from is like Banner, Illinois,” Arturo offers.
Though he was born and raised in Peoria, Arturo’s parents were from El Tulillo, where they would return to visit family each year. That is how, as a young teenager, he was first introduced to Carla. “We met,” Arturo recalls, “but nothing really happened.” Though their interest in one another grew over time, a relationship seemed impossible given the long distance between them. For many years, their paths did not cross at all—until they met again, remarkably, at a funeral in Bartonville, Illinois.
In the years that had passed, Carla moved with her family to Aurora, Illinois. When news came of the death of a cousin in central Illinois, Arturo and Carla found themselves in the same room once again; Arturo’s family had also known the man. “I asked her if she was married—she said no. And she asked me if I was married, and I said no,” Arturo says, a toothy grin spreading across his face. Within a couple years, they had married each other.
Arturo and Carla share a love for art and culture that is as apparent as their love for one another. They intertwine their words and trade off sentences, retelling stories in a seamlessly interwoven dialogue. As we chat, Arturo recalls his earliest interest in the arts as a young boy, inspired by legendary Nike designer Tinker Hatfield, the creative force behind the wildly popular Air Jordan III through Air Jordan XV series. Soon he was drawing his own shoe designs.
When Arturo purchased his first lowrider car at age 18, he poured his creative energy into customizing it, a pursuit he still enjoys today. “I didn’t see it as art, but I did see it as me wanting to be different,” he observes. “I guess that’s what an artist is really—just seeing the world differently.”
Meanwhile, as Carla grew up, she experienced the arts as an admirer. “I always liked the arts—the scene, the paintings,” she notes. “I always liked Frida Kahlo’s paintings and her history.” Upon moving to Aurora, she discovered she had easy access to Chicago’s expansive cultural offerings as well.
In the early years of their marriage, the couple attended First Friday arts events together in Peoria. “We would go to gallery shows at Ear in the Envelope or the Sunbeam Building,” Arturo recalls. “I always knew there was an art scene here Peoria… I just knew I wasn’t part of it.”
Over the years, Arturo grew in his artistic abilities, taking sculpture courses at ICC and honing his portraiture skills. But life kept him from spending more time on it, and he grew increasingly frustrated. “He used to say, ‘I want to dedicate more time to art.’ Because that is what he liked,” Carla interjects. “And I was like, Well, just go ahead and do more stuff!” With that simple encouragement, the two embarked on a journey that would change their lives forever.
A Bounty of Culture
While Carla and Arturo wanted a business centered around the arts, they weren’t entirely sure how to make their dream a reality. “I would hear interviews of people who had a nice business plan—they knew how they wanted things to work out,” Arturo observes, shrugging. “It wasn’t like that for us. Casa de Arte was just an idea… based on what talents we had.”
Though they had dabbled in Peoria’s art scene, they still felt like newcomers, and there weren’t many galleries where unestablished artists like Arturo could display their work. “A lot of places said you needed to be recognized in order to have a show,” Carla explains. “He wanted to give an opportunity to young artists, or those who are not as known… a place to show [their artwork].”
But they needed a source of income in order to start a gallery. “I talked to other gallery owners in Peoria, and I didn’t know if we could make it selling art. So, we said, ‘Well…” Arturo pauses, gesturing at Carla. “She’s the best cook in the world!” They opened Casa de Arte in November 2018 as an art gallery and lounge, and began to offer food the following spring.
Casa de Arte is unlike most other Mexican restaurants in the area—and that was a purposeful decision. “When I moved here, there was nowhere to buy authentic tacos,” Carla explains. “They tend to cater more to an American taste.” Their menu—small but mighty, and full of flavor—features items like Carla’s famous guacamole and an al pastor recipe from her father. “It’s been in my dad’s family for generations,” she notes, adding that he has yet to tell her exactly what he puts into it. “I haven’t earned it!” she chuckles.
They also carry an impressive number of tequilas. “I think we have the largest selection [in central Illinois]. Tequila is only made in Jalisco, the state where Carla is from and my parents are from,” Arturo explains, pointing out their connection to the agave-based spirit.
An authentic cultural experience was important for the couple to recreate, which meant avoiding the décor typical of Mexican restaurants in the U.S. “If you go to a Mexican restaurant in Mexico, it doesn’t have all the maracas and sombreros,” Carla notes. “I love my culture! But we wanted to give it a different feel, more artsy.”
The restaurant’s interior has a distinctly contemporary feel, its clean lines and solid black and white colors providing the perfect backdrop for art exhibitions. Their business logo, designed by Arturo, is an expression of his sleek, geometric style. And while he brings his arts background to Casa de Arte, Carla provides a rich bounty of Mexican culture.
“I grew up in a Mexican family—but there’s still so much more that she taught me about our own culture,” Arturo observes thoughtfully. “A lot of people probably don’t know this, but there is Spanish rock [music] that is really popular in Mexico. I wasn’t familiar with it because I was born and raised in Peoria—the only thing I was into was mariachi music.”
“We complement each other,” she nods in agreement. “I showed him one part of the culture that he didn’t know, and he showed me part of the art scene that I didn’t know.”
House of Inspiration
Examples of Arturo’s artwork can be found at Casa de Arte—including the striking portrait of artist Frida Kahlo that greets customers near the entrance. While he counts as influences the simple geometric shapes of Picasso and the use of light by Rembrandt, he says he increasingly finds himself inspired by the artists who show their work there. “I’m learning about different styles directly from the artists, which has helped me grow to appreciate art that I would probably otherwise never make.”
Their October Artist of the Month is photographer David Esquivel, a Peoria native who was living in Los Angeles but returned to Peoria when the pandemic began. “He will be our first Artist of the Month that is a family member—and our first Mexican-American artist, other than me,” Arturo notes. “One of my dreams with starting Casa was to spotlight some of the talent we have in our family.”
As he and Carla look to the future, they plan to highlight more Hispanic and Latinx artists, but they really want to be known as a space for artists of all cultural backgrounds. Ultimately, the couple hopes to help those on the fringes become more involved. “Our goal is to break down some of these ideas of ‘serious’ art galleries and be a bridge from the amateur to the professional,” Arturo declares. “If someone sees the art on our walls and gets inspired to create something, we did our job.” PM
Casa de Arte is located at 1227 SW Adams Street in Peoria. Learn more at casadearte1227.com or find them on Facebook.