PILSEN — Will Smith changed Oneka Ijeoma’s life.
After the 23-year-old Lincoln Park resident watched an interview with the actor on YouTube, she quit her job as a sales assistant at a local boutique and started selling her own jewelry in front of Cafe Jumping Bean, a coffee shop at the corner of West 18th and South Bishop streets.
“He [Smith] was saying something like, ‘You have to just decide and it’s as simple as that. Just like water, everything will bend to your will.’ And I just realized I didn’t want to live as a slave to my job anymore,” she said.
Ijeoma chose to sell her self-designed, handmade jewelry in front of Cafe Jumping Bean because, until her career change, she was involved in the Roosevelt University Sociology Society, a student activist group that frequented Pilsen.
Up until two months ago, Ijeoma worked at the Rugby clothing store at 1000 W. Armitage Ave. The day she heard Will Smith’s words of inspiration, she called the store and told them she wasn’t coming in to work.
“I jumped in a cab and came here (to Cafe Jumping Bean). That day, I made rent and still had enough money to buy beads,” she said.
Ijeoma has also had some Pilsen resident support along the way.
Tuesday night, just as Ijeoma was trying to decide how to get her trunks back to her Lincoln Park apartment, “Brother Ray” Gutierrez, Jr., approached her makeshift corner shop and told her she could store the trunks down the street at his home, where he and his mother live.
“Brother Ray,” 66, has lived with his mother in the 1400 block of West 18th for 16 years. As a longtime Pilsen resident with connections in the neighborhood, he told Ijeoma he’d try to get her in with some of the local art venues.
“I seen her since this morning and then we were talking and something brought me to her,” he said. “So then, I just offered my services. That’s what I do.”
As the sunlight faded and the temperature started dropping, Ijeoma talked about her jewelry line, King Onye, which is Nigerian for the King and I.
Ijeoma, whose father is from Nigeria, said she was inspired by her full Nigerian first name: “Onyeka Chi.”
“In my father’s language, that is a question and then an answer. ‘Onyeka,’ means ‘who is greater than death?’ And ‘Chi’ means ‘God,’” she said.
Ijeoma said she asks that same question when creating her jewelry. One of her best-selling pieces is a necklace made out of a piece of wood that sits on top of a bullet shell.
“It represents life overcoming death, which is why it’s turned with the branch being above instead of the branch being below,” she said. “It’s sort of like that idea that things that represent death and depression … you can overcome those things.”
Ijeoma will be at the corner of 18th and Bishop through Friday, Dec. 7, from noon until “as long as I have to.” She also plans to host a holiday pop-up jewelry show on the evening of Dec. 15 in Lincoln Park at 707 W. Armitage Ave.
“I am going to have a storefront. I am,” she said, punching the ‘ams.’ “That’s why I’m standing on this corner.”