Coffee Lab owners open art gallery on Prairie Avenue


Photo courtesy of Daniel Aquino

Shelves full of fine art prints on easels decorate the Prairie Ave Gallery space. Operated by the owners of Coffee Lab, the new location opens Saturday.

At Coffee Lab and Roasters, the drinks aren’t the only draw.

After working with the local art community to exhibit the work of Evanston artists for the past two years, Coffee Lab co-owner Daniel Aquino said art was what brought the cafe to life when meals in person were limited.

Now, the cafe continues its partnerships with the arts community by creating the new Prairie Avenue Gallery located at 2601 Prairie Ave.

Opening Saturday, the gallery will feature local artwork including paintings, greeting cards, art prints and other merchandise. The new location will not sell coffee or made-to-order food, but will instead offer unique snacks and candies. For starters, Prairie Ave Gallery will be offering ube candy — a nod to Coffee Lab’s beloved purple ube latte — and mass-produced Turkish delights.

Early in the pandemic, Aquino said he and co-owner Jason Kim removed the seats from The Coffee Lab, leaving the place bare. He got in touch with the non-profit arts organization Evanston Made and started a partnership where local artists could display their work at the cafe.

As the partnership grew, Coffee Lab created a schedule to showcase new local artists each month. Closely connected to Evanston’s art community, Aquino said the cafe has become like a modern art gallery.

“It brought in a lot of locals and a lot of new loyal customers,” Aquino said. “So that turned into another expansion of Coffee Lab, which is this retail art gallery boutique we have here on Prairie Avenue.”

At Prairie Ave Gallery, Aquino said he aims to celebrate the diversity that exists in Evanston.

He said he envisions the gallery attracting artists, travelers and locals who want to experience different cultures.

“It’s something we’ve tried to maintain as a Coffee Lab mission,” Aquino said. “Creating a safe space for all people, regardless of your sexuality and regardless of your ethnicity.”

Aquino said he also plans to use Prairie Ave Gallery as a venue for Evanston nonprofits to hold their events. The gallery will partner with Evanston Made and Kids Create Change, a non-profit organization promoting equitable arts programs in Evanston. Aquino, a board member for Kids Create Change, said much of its programming focuses on youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth.

Evanston artist Geraldine Martinez-Benz is one of many who will exhibit her work in the new gallery. She said she paints portraits with vivid colors and particularly enjoys creating art that honors her Filipino heritage. In addition to the paintings, the gallery will feature note cards, art prints, mugs and tote bags featuring Martinez-Benz’s designs.

Martinez-Benz said she had wanted to create merchandise for a while, but never got around to it. She considered selling her work online, but Aquino then offered her a spot at the Prairie Avenue Gallery.

“To be able to have a physical space for that is really wonderful,” she said. “It’s a huge opportunity for me.”

Another artist featured at the gallery, Shellie Argeanton, said Coffee Lab has made art accessible to local creators, as finding exhibition space is not always easy for artists.

Argeanton said the new gallery is a cozy place with the sun shining in from Central Street, ideal for residents, artists and students of the North West to explore.

“There are a lot of small items that you could buy as gifts,” Argeanton said. “Maybe something you want to send home because you haven’t been home in a while, or to send your love out into the world and enjoy local art and artists while you do it. ”

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Twitter: @amccadd

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