Three years ago, Will Sanchez felt that he was coming full circle.
He opened an art gallery in a store that he’d once tried to rob. He drew crowds to openings and festivals there. On an outer wall, he painted a huge mural of an angel watching over Storer Avenue. A few blocks west, he opened a head shop.
But life isn’t so much a circle as a spiral. The pandemic shut both his places for three months last year and still limits gatherings there. Meanwhile, the gallery’s building was sold, renovations begun, and the mural sided over.
So Sanchez is getting a new home ready for the gallery in Old Brooklyn. He hopes to open it March 1 and keep growing there as a painter, proprietor, poet, and neighborhood activist.
“Artists do a lot for the community,” he says. “If you look at all the communities that develop, art plays a big part.” It touches hearts, draws crowds, and builds bonds.
His La Cosecha Galeria (Harvest Gallery) will reopen at 4490 Pearl Rd. Because of the pandemic, there’ll be no gathering for the occasion. He hopes soon to post the newly hung art on his website. The Headshop will continue at 3359 W. 58th St.
Between the gallery and the shop, Sanchez and his fiancee, Madeline Vega, will sell his paintings and framed poems, her crystals, other makers’ works, books, tobacco, CBD, incense, and more. They’ll also sell coffee and smoothies in a space inside the gallery called The Creative Cafe. He has also received grants to stage two virtual symposiums soon, one for minority artists, the other for Old Brooklyn artists.
Until recently, the multifaceted Sanchez worked six nights a week as a quality supervisor at North Coast Container. He has also managed a Hispanic radio station, published articles, turned out graphics and videos, led voting drives, served on local nonprofit boards and done much more for himself and his town.
He paints under the name Topiltzin, a mythical Mayan potentate from Sanchez’s ancestral Mexico. He favors portraits with intense colors and sometimes spiritual themes.
Local printmaker and curator Liz Maugans says of Sanchez’s art, “It’s vibrant. It’s accessible. It spills out into the world. It’s joyful. And I also think there’s very deep meaning embedded in the work. It comes from his soulfulness and spirituality and culture.”
Maugans admires Sanchez’s activism, too. “He’s sacrificed a lot of his own artmaking for his community work. He’s a connector. He’s sort of like the point person that people want to go to to make sure we’re communicating and broadening the opportunities for Latino and Hispanic artists.”
Sanchez has won grants from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, Spaces, Arts Cleveland, and Old Brooklyn Community Development Corp. In 2019, he was featured in a Plain Dealer series called Cleveland Champions. Then he heard from an interested reader, the judge who’d sentenced him, Nancy Russo of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas. Now they’re looking into his teaching art in prison.
Russo says, “He’s so talented. He’s found his way. He’s got a good heart. I’m so proud of him.”
Guillermo Sanchez, Jr., was born 49 years ago in Adrian, Mich. He moved to Cleveland before kindergarten. He grew up on Seymour Avenue, later notorious for a long triple kidnapping. He knew one of the victims and also family of the kidnapper.
From early on, Sanchez loved comic books, graffiti, and other forms of art. He found that doodling vented feelings he wasn’t allowed to discuss.
He attended Lincoln West and Aviation High Schools, then passed the high school equivalency test. He spent four years in the army, partly in Jamaica, Germany, and Japan. He spent four more in the reserves and left as staff sergeant.
In 2001, he opened La Cosecha in a condemned building at West 45th Street and Bush Avenue with two partners, including his best friend since age 5. He says it was the city’s first gallery owned and run by Hispanics. It drew some buyers and many artists and performers.
“I like the vibe at an art show,” he says. “I like the community spirit.”
Then Sanchez was laid off from his job as a quality engineer. He struggled to pay the bills and to cope with what was later diagnosed as schizophrenia. He thought about crime and suicide.
He finally put on a mask, pocketed a gun, walked across the street, entered a mom-and-pop store. “Give me the money,” he said. The mom persuaded him to give her the gun instead. Masked or not, she said, “I can see in your eyes that you’re good.”
To this day, Sanchez isn’t sure why, but he stayed there and waited for the cops. He spent 18 months in area prisons. He took art therapy and prescription drugs. He also sold caricatures and tattoos to fellow inmates.
The gallery closed meanwhile. His childhood friend moved to Florida and was killed there a few years later by police.
A man with a mission
After Sanchez’s release, he resumed engineering, art, sidelines and community service with new drive. “After prison, I felt ashamed, guilty. I felt like I should do anything to help people.”
In 2015, he briefly owned Gallery 1299 on West Ninth Street, but the building was sold. Four years later, he reopened La Cosecha at 5404 Storer Ave.
Soon a storm damaged it and shut it down. He reopened five months later and started The Headshop next. Then the pandemic came, limiting gatherings at either venue. But he vows to do what he can at both places to make money and help rebuild the town.
“The main thing is to get back into art, to get some kind of measure of success, to get something artistic going on in the community.”
Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning reporter who spent 34 years with The Plain Dealer. He has also published freelance articles, fiction, and “John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil” (Oxford University Press).
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