PILSEN — Nine months ago, artist Omar Valencia sold his Pilsen gallery space so he could bring his ailing mother back to Columbia.
Now, after being diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in July, it’s Valencia who is reaching out to Pilsen’s artistic community for aid.
“Most important is the support from my friends,” Valencia, 56, said. “If it’s not for my friends, I can’t do it, because no family, no money, no nothing. So friends is very important.”
Four months ago, the painter and owner of the former Oxala Gallery, 1653 W. 18th St., was in Columbia teaching art workshops when he began to develop a consistent cough and stomachache.
Valencia came back to Chicago and, in July, ended up in Stroger Hospital. His blood count was so low that, upon being admitted, he had seven pints of blood pumped into his body.
“It’s a wonder he made it,” said Valencia’s longtime friend, Montserrat Alsina.
Alsina, who is caring for Valencia out of her 18th Street studio, has known Valencia since he opened Oxala.
“He doesn’t have family here so we are like his family,” she said. “Omar is like my brother. Omar has always been there with the good and the bad, always,” she said.
Through Oxala, Valencia featured art from local Pilsen artists for over seven years.
That same community is rallying to raise money for Valencia — who has no health insurance — through a “Celebration of Friendship” fundraiser at Citalin gallery on Thursday.
“What Omar did was sort of open the doors for a lot of artists in the community,” said Pilsen artist Diana Solis. “He was someone who was known in the community for his shop, which became like a gallery as more and more people kept showing there.”
Those artists — many of whom will be donating work Thursday — include painter Esperanza Gama, political cartoonist Eric J. Garcia, painter Bert Menco, and illustrator CHema Skandal, among others.
“He’s the kind of person that would literally give the shirt off his back to help you,” Solis said. “He’s a very special person. I never met anyone like him before.
Solis, a survivor of both breast cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, accompanied Valencia on his second time back in the hospital.
“I was pretty demanding. Montserrat and I were his advocates in the hospital. You also have choices as a patient and it takes a lot to have that confidence in the face of something that is so life threatening,” she said.
Valencia has lost over 20 pounds since April. While not religious, he said he has a deeply spiritual side: during the five hours of his chemotherapy, he meditates and prays to pass the time.
The sickness has left him too weak to create art for the time. One of his most recent paintings — a watercolor silkscreen with three images of the Virgin Mary — remains unfinished.
Sitting in his friend Montserrat Alsina’s studio Wednesday, he gently touches the silkscreen.
“This is beautiful,” he said. “When I was a child, my grandma, she used to have altars all the time. She was very religious. And I love that. I no practice religion, but I love the atmosphere,” he said.
“I need everything,” Valencia said. “Love and support. The money — people, you can find it anywhere. But the love and support of the people, this has been so good.”
Valencia’s “Celebration of Friendship” fundraiser takes place Thursday, at Citalin Gallery, 2005 S. Blue island Ave., from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. A $25 suggested donation includes food and beverages, live entertainment, a silent art auction and one raffle ticket.