Evanston has a new addition to the art scene: Prairie Avenue Gallery. Located at 2601 Prairie Ave., the gallery grew out of a pandemic project by Coffee Lab co-owner Daniel Aquino.

As the pandemic raged, Aquino said Coffee Lab on Noyes St. placed chairs and tables on the sidewalk to eliminate indoor dining. He said that during the pandemic, Coffee Lab looked like “a ghost town.”

Aquino decided to invite Evanston artists to display their work on the bare walls and spaces. According to Aquino, many artists were interested, especially members of Evanston Made, the local arts-promoting organization.

Artwork on display at Prairie Avenue Gallery. (Photo via Instagram)

Coffee Lab became a gallery while remaining the same familiar coffee shop for several months. People would come in to look at art and buy coffee, Coffee Lab did shoutouts on social media to Evanston artists, and more than ever, Aquino felt sure that art was a part of the healing process during a global pandemic.

“It became something that guests and the community really looked forward to,” he said. “We are so thankful that the community and their art and friends became our community and brought life back to Noyes Street and our business when it was dying.”

Both of Aquino’s parents are fine arts graduates and when he started displaying more art in Coffee Lab, his mother shared with him the lineage of art in his family, including his great-great uncle in the Philippines who was an oil painter. Although he has passed, his artwork is still on display in the Philippines presidential palace. 

Aquino decided that to nourish and continue art in the community he would need more room dedicated to small gifts, prints and cards, so he rented space at 2601 Prairie Ave. The gallery opened on Jan. 15 and Lisa Degliantoni of Evanston Made helped Aquino find seven residential artists to fill the shop.

Ella Kovacs, a new Evanston resident born in Romania, provides luxury gift boxes for the gallery and her own photography in cards and prints. Kovacs is the founder of the Stellar Story, a curated gifting concierge service based in Evanston.

Ninety percent of the brands she partners with are women or minority owned and every item in the box is from small businesses.

Currently, Kovacs is offering three different boxes at the gallery, but she will have other options on a rotating basis and available on her website such as It’s Coffee O’Clock, Zen Soul and Choco Holly. 

Kovacs’ Choco Holly Box from the Stellar Story. Photo by Ella Kovacs.

“You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to make someone you love feel special,” Kovacs said. “It’s something so simple but it makes you look like a superstar to whoever you send it to.”

Besides her boxes, Kovacs also has her photography on display in the form of cards and prints. She is a world traveler and said she stopped counting how many countries she had visited after 125. Like the other artists, she connected with Aquino during the pandemic at Coffee Lab.

One of Kovacs’ cards. (Photo: Ella Kovacs)

Aquino said besides the art, he wants to create another space in the city where people can feel welcomed, including BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. He plans to collaborate with Evanston organizations Kids Create Change, Studio 3 and Kitchen Table Stories Project for future community events.

“Art really can promote a message and the message we want to promote is that this is a safe place, regardless of your background you are welcomed here and welcomed to share your art,” Aquino said.  

Prairie Avenue Gallery is open from 12 to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Fridays and 12 to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

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Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas is a reporter and the social media manager at the Evanston RoundTable. She covers small businesses, social justice and human interest stories. Contact her at sam@evanstonroundtable.com and...