Editor’s note: This story is the conclusion of a three-part series on Evanston Community Fridges and the people behind the mutual aid effort. Read part one here and part two here.

Alfonso ‘Piloto’ Nieves Ruiz, 46, fridge artist  

It was 2001 when Alfonso “Piloto” Nieves Ruiz first started making art. He had emigrated to Chicago from Mexico three years earlier, at 21, and was working 14-hour shifts in a restaurant for $5 an hour, no breaks. 

Piloto Nieves Ruiz

The city’s alleys felt safer to Nieves Ruiz than the streets, where he couldn’t understand people talking. The barking dogs in the alleyways reminded him of Mexico. Between garages and stairwells, he collected things left behind: TVs, couches, bicycles, computers.

“I was like, man, this way of consuming is killing us,” he said.

He wanted to give these items a kind of second life, and began making art out of what some consider garbage, creating surreal figures that are both beautiful and grotesque.

Nieves Ruiz leads art workshops and has exhibited in Chicago at venues including the National Museum of Mexican Art and the Field Museum. He plans to open a combined exhibition space and taco restaurant in Evanston.

Nieves Ruiz first learned about The Love Fridge movement in Chicago when a friend invited him to build a shelter for one of the fridges. He thought the idea was beautiful, and he knew what it was like to worry about food. But he didn’t have time.

Then last spring, a friend working at the Childcare Network of Evanston asked him to decorate Evanston Community Fridges’ first location. This time, his schedule was open. 

Community fridge butterflies
The butterflies on the community fridge by the Childcare Network of Evanston carry messages in English and Spanish. Credit: Adina Keeling

At his son’s Evanston elementary school, Nieves Ruiz had recently led butterfly-painting workshops. He decided to repurpose the project to keep the children’s work alive. He saw the monarchs as a symbol of immigration and transformation, representative of coming together in tough times.

The second grade classes had painted butterflies on plywood, and Nieves Ruiz had asked the children what they valued most in family and community. Parents had written the responses on the butterflies in both English and Spanish: love, strength, amor, dream, solidarity, I’m beautiful, gratitud, we are one, freedom, esperanza, home.

On a June morning, Nieves Ruiz arrived at the Childcare Network, unspooled rolls of brown paper on the grass and laid out the now-fading butterflies. He’d brought stronger acrylics to give the butterflies a longer-lasting coat. The Childcare Network had invited friends to help, and Nieves Ruiz directed those families and asked neighbors and strangers on the sidewalk to join.

Nieves Ruiz spray-painted the inside of the pantry and the shelter walls a light blue and layered on a vibrant pink-purple, leaving large ovals of blue. He painted the shelves lime green and the shelter’s trim an intense neon pink. Nieves Ruiz had expected to be done by dinnertime, but at 10 p.m. he and the volunteers were still outside, phone flashlights in hand, drilling holes to secure the butterflies with screws. 

Credit: Photos by Adina Keeling (two left-most photos) and Richard Cahan

In the following months, Nieves Ruiz came back to fill in the empty ovals. On the front of the fridge he painted Earth, and on one side of the fridge wrote “free food” in dark blue capital letters. On the other side, he drew two interlocking hands. Underneath them he wrote, “We are mirrors” on three separate lines, with the Spanish in between: “Somos espejos.”

The artist explained: “You are me, I am you, you know? And night and day, we need each other, and that’s it.”

Isaiah Tolbert, 21, former Soul Fridge co–site manager  

As a freshman at Northwestern in 2019, Isaiah Tolbert felt a little annoyed, even angry, as he watched pedestrians in downtown Evanston pass by homeless people without interacting with them. He’d grown up with some food and housing insecurity himself, in a big family in Omaha, Nebraska – his mother has nine siblings, and he has three full siblings and three half-siblings.

Isaiah Tolbert

He began going out of his way to talk to people on the streets, to make them feel valued. And in spring 2021, he applied to become a fridge site manager.

Tolbert knew that the fridges would not directly solve some bigger issues with our food systems, like the greenhouse gases produced by landfill waste and shipping. But building networks of care, he thought, was a first step.

After joining the community fridge team, Tolbert was a site manager for an appliance that didn’t exist for several more months, until Maytag donated one of its models to Soul & Smoke in June.

Once it was set up, Tolbert visited the Soul Fridge several times a week to make sure there were no major spills or food that had gone bad. He’d check for accessibility issues (like something blocking the shelter) and update his team via Slack.

And on Tuesdays, he’d visit all four fridges and fill them with food from Campus Kitchens, a Northwestern student group that collects leftover food from dining halls and campus cafes and delivers meals to low-income Evanstonians (and now to the fridges). First stop: the Soul Fridge. Second, the CNE Fridge. Then the Sunrise Fridge outside of Kombucha Brava, and finally, the Freedom Fridge by Palmhouse 619. 

Most of the time, Tolbert encountered fridge visitors on his drop offs. One day, there was an older woman by the Soul Fridge, who was pushing a reusable grocery bag on wheels and accompanied by a young boy. Usually if Tolbert saw people while he was pulling up, he would stay in his car for a minute; he liked to give people privacy. But he worried that there might not be enough food for the two, so he got out of the car, slung a bag from the trunk over his shoulder, and approached the fridge.

Art decorates the side of the Soul Fridge at 1601 Payne St., next to Soul & Smoke. Credit: Richard Cahan

“Got some meals from Northwestern,” he told the woman, and he held the door open for her as she filled her bag. Meanwhile, at the takeout window, a man in an apron was leaning over the sill to talk to the boy below, who had wandered over. A minute later, the back door next to the window swung open and the employee emerged with a paper bag. Cornbread. He handed it to the boy and said jokingly, “Don’t tell anyone.” 

During his junior year, Tolbert and his two roommates moved to Rogers Park in search of a better apartment for less money. Being farther from the Soul Fridge now, Tolbert is stepping down from his fridge manager position. But he’ll still help the fridges divert food from becoming waste. He now coordinates pickups with Northwestern Dining too, communicating with the chefs at various dining halls to collect extra food that goes unserved. This way, there’s always someone providing the fridges with university food that would be wasted when Campus Kitchens is on break.

Tolbert will make some deliveries himself, but he wants to see others pick up food from the dining hall kitchens and bring them to the fridges too.

For further sustainability, he says. In leaving, he is making space to bring in others.