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David Gauna’s Artwork Blooms Throughout Chicago

Written by on August 24, 2023

Growing up, Chicago muralist and painter David Gauna found an escape from everyday life through his artwork. Now, he hopes to give Chicago teenagers a chance to find themselves by encouraging their own creative expression in art programs across the city.

David Gauna, AKA Bloom, has spent the majority of his life making art; he remembers drawing and doodling while watching Saturday morning cartoons as a child in the ‘90s. Gauna continued to use art as an outlet throughout his high school years as he navigated depression and found his sexuality — but took a break to pursue his community engagement work post-graduation.

“Later on, [I] realized that my art was a tool to engage community,” Gauna recalled.

David Gauna is a Chicago artist and youth activist who creates work under the name “Bloom.” Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Gauna’s first advocacy work involved mentoring high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors as a school community coordinator. As part of this role, Gauna combined his passions for community work and visual art; he created space and opportunities for young men and boys to explore creative expression and self-discovery, like painting small murals around their school. This eventually led to Gauna founding his own social justice-oriented art programs throughout Chicago, all of which are also called “Bloom.” 

“One point, I had about 75 young people working with me to create art across the city, and they were all exploring … what matters to you on your block, in your city, around the world?” He reflected. “What does that look like in art?”

Currently, Gauna is working on his new art show “Bobby Bloom,” a series of acrylic, spray paint and paint marker portraits focusing on people identifying as gay, bi and trans, and how they connect to their femininity as a way to combat toxic masculinity.

For this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” David Gauna discusses growing up as a ‘90s baby around Chicago’s Northwest side, how he discovered his calling as an artist and community activist and more.

Where are you from?

I grew up mostly on the Northwest side of Chicago. And I bounced around a lot as a kid, so anywhere from Ukrainian Village to Albany Park, Mayfair, around Logan Square, Portage Park, all over the North and Northwest side of Chicago. I was raised by a single mother. I’m the youngest, the baby of my family, the youngest of six kids, and my mom worked day and night. I had started taking public transportation at like 9 years old. 9 years old, I was taking the bus by myself, starting to learn the streets. For some reason, I always grew up somewhere along Pulaski, like Pulaski was always a street I was really close to, this busy street my family was always really close to. Didn’t get into trouble! I was the one who was always playing with kids on the block. I definitely had, I think, a ’90s babies experience when it comes to having a lemonade stand at one point, raking leaves in the fall for some side cash, shoveling snow in the winter for neighbors, trying to get that hustle going. I spent most of my time drawing and doodling in my room and watching cartoons on Saturday mornings. And, I think, really being a kid. Growing up on the north, northwest side and growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, I had a pretty good childhood, even though I had a mother that was constantly working. She worked to make sure that  we had what we needed.

Chicago muralist David Gauna in his studio. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Tell us about your journey into art making.

I grew up drawing all the time. It actually started off with dinosaurs, I had this huge obsession with dinosaurs. In fact, my family was convinced that I was going to grow up digging up dinosaurs with my life. I think they’re slightly disappointed that that didn’t happen. That transformed into drawing cartoon characters and drawing like Rugrats and Nickelodeon characters at all my favorite cartoons. And I’m telling you, I have a hustler spirit, because I would draw these cartoon characters from magazines. And then I would give them to my mom and she would make prints of my drawings, and I would be in my class hustling and selling some of my drawings in, like, fourth and fifth grade. I can’t even remember how much I even charged for this. But I definitely was hustling that out. 

My early teenage years, I was doing comic books and drawing comic book characters and doing a lot of heavy inking and that transformed into my own thing. I end up exploring angels and doodling and drawing city skyscrapers, and I think really creating pieces that just came from my own mind. Drawing really kept me, I would say, together. Whatever emotions I was going through in my life, whatever was happening around the world, you will find me just drawing and creating. And I think art ended up becoming my escape in my teenage years as I was navigating life, as I was navigating depression, as I was navigating my sexuality. And, as soon as I graduated high school, I kind of gave it up and I got into community work. But then later on, realized that my art was a tool to engage community. And so I end up finding ways of intersecting both passions of community engagement and my passion for arts and public art, which led me to create my own youth art programs across the city, doing murals across the city, using art to mentor young men at the time. And now, being a full-time artist.

Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Tell us more about the youth work you do.

I think at first when I was working, but as soon as I graduated high school, I created my own position within a high school as a community coordinator. Part of that role was me mentoring young men to graduate high school. These were freshmen, sophomore, junior young men who, either teachers or the dean, or they themselves reached out to me and we built this bond. And so I would use art to really create space for them to explore themselves, as well as just to stay out of trouble. I would create projects around the school, like little murals and stuff like that. And I would recruit these young men to join me in this, even though they didn’t identify as artists, right? My experiences, my knowledge had a bigger impact in their lives, to help them graduate, to help them stay focused, to be a resource in their lives. And so I end up leaving that to open up my own programs across the city. They were programs that connect to my artistic name, I use the word “Bloom,” both as a metaphor of my art, to identify myself with my art, but also all of my art programs were under the name “Bloom.” One point, I had about 75 young people working with me to create art across the city, and they were all exploring art and social justice dialogues. So what matters to you on your block, in your city, around the world? What does that look like in art? And to create a safe space of young people to where we can consensually come together and imagine a better world. 

What’re you working on in your personal art practice?

I’m currently working on an art show. The show is called “Bobby Blooms.” “Bobby,” I use as a way of something flirtatious but something very familiar within the Latino, Latinx community. It is an art show that is going to create space and showcase the several portraits of individuals who identify as gay, bi and/or trans and how they connect to their femininity through their passion, body and/or desires. And by doing so, how is that combating the toxic machismo that we grow up with and that we hear every single day within our culture that we’ve normalized? And so these individuals are working with me on telling their story, submitting their portrait and letting me work with their image to create a piece. And, as an artist, my mediums are acrylic and spray paints, ink markers, paint markers. I want to create a program around the art show where each piece is going to have its own day, and really have a conversation. And invite those who feel that they can connect most to that piece to contribute to the conversation, because the art show is going to be very, very engaging to where you, as a guest, are going to find ways to contribute your own story, whether anonymous or you owning it however way that you want to.

David Gauna with his piece “Homie Love,” acrylic and paint markers on 4’x3′ canvas. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

What does your work look like?

I love to work on very large pieces. I have a couple of friends who are always yelling at me because they’re like, “Large pieces don’t sell.” I’m just like, “Well, oh, well. I’ll just starve, then.” Because I just love working on pieces that are like five by five, five by four feet, really large canvas rows. But in this art show that I’m developing, I’m going to have a mix of different sizes. And I focus a lot on portraits. And I feel like, as an artist, I’m actually reconnecting to my inner child. I’m playing with colors that I feel like I used to be afraid to play with. I’m doodling, I’m reconnecting with a lot. I was doodling, not stressing on perfection, but instead just letting my hands and brain go splatter on these canvases. I’m definitely bringing in a lot of paint drips and colors. And it’s this combination of realism with total abstract, blow-up on canvas type of thing. So I hope that my pieces are bringing this energy of calm, pride, but also honor. 

Is there anything else you’d like to mention about you and your work?

What a gift my work experience has contributed to my work, my artwork. I think a lot of artists, and even nonprofit workers, I think we forget what a privilege it is to do the work that we’re doing. Especially me as an artist working with, and even in my working community, that it is a gift, because a lot of the things that we are doing, a lot of things that we are showcasing, I feel like should not exist, right? Creating space for community and fighting to create safe space for community is due to a lot of the harm that we see that’s happening outside of those spaces. And so reminding myself all the time that this is a gift and that I’m super appreciative of all of the young people I’ve worked with, all of the people and community I’ve worked with, all of my mentors I’ve worked with, my friends, my family. And I’m just excited to keep going.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Written introduction and transcription by Morgan Ciocca

Photos by Ari Mejia, edited by Morgan Ciocca

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