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Hopes and Dreams of Chicago Youth Featured in Garfield Plaza Mural

by Ed Finkel of LISC Chicago.
Sept. 15, 2008 – East Garfield Park residents and leaders gathered on August 30 for the ribbon-cutting on a new mural, constructed this summer by 15 high school students under the tutelage of local muralist Gerry Lang, located across from the newly installed plaza at California Avenue, Madison Street and Fifth Avenue.

The 1,000-square-foot bricolage mural, built through a partnership with Chicago Public Art Group, was designed in late June at LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program lead agency the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, then built painstakingly, piece by piece, in July and early August.

Fifteen high-school students designed and constructed the mural with supervision from muralist Gerry Lang.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

“It’s right there at our gateway,” said Mike Tomas, the New Communities Program director for the alliance. “The plaza’s been wildly successful,” with little vandalism or graffiti since it was installed last fall, with help from a $20,000 LISC/City of Chicago grant.

The design for the mural, based on hopes and dreams that the children of East Garfield will grow up happy and healthy despite their challenging environment, depicts flowers, doves, hearts, peace symbols and children dancing.

When the students first brainstormed what they wanted to depict, the themes were often darker: violence, children being killed, and everything else wrong with their daily lives, Lang said while taking a break from tiling work on a pleasantly sunny August day.

“I asked them questions,” he said, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the sound of a squad car wailing down Madison. “When you’re walking down the street here, what kind of message do you want to present? … You know all this other stuff is happening.”

Once they settled on a more hopeful theme, students designed the collage with help from magazine clippings and images downloaded off the Internet. They put together a 2-foot-wide scale design with oil pastels, made changes, and then submitted the design for review by a community committee, Lang said.

Final tweaks were made in the field as students spent their days climbing scaffolds to install the exterior tile, affixed with a tough concrete-based acrylic designed to withstand Chicago winters, Lang said. “A lot of the decisions about how things finally looked kind of happened spontaneously,” such as the hearts on the red shirt of a girl depicted in the design.

Smaller elements like bees, stars and flowers were built first, with larger pieces of the collage built around them. Most individual elements of the collage were outlined with mirrored tile surrounding the colored pieces to make them stand out.

“Once the grout gets in there, these things will really pop out,” said Lang, a muralist since 2000 who has painted murals at Kelvyn Park High School . “A lot of the kids had never done anything like this, and they had no idea they were getting in so deep. But most of them have stepped up.”

Interviewed while lunching on Little Caesar’s pizza on the sidewalk across from the plaza, students talked about their inspiration and experience — and they punctuated one another’s answers with typical teen faux-dissing like “don’t listen to his lies,” and “you’re going to write a whole book about him!”

“There’s so much violence going on,” said Johnnie Redmond, a 10th grader at Dunbar High School who affixed the peace sign and butterfly. “We did this to show we want peace in the area. It shows how everybody can come together to play with each other.”

Children enjoy a warm August morning during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

“It’s been hard. It’s been fun, though,” said Tierra Zeigler, an 11th grader at Al Raby Community and Environmental High School , who pointed with pride to the butterfly and flowers she designed. “When you get done with what you’re doing, it looks nice.”

Tiara Livingston, a 10th grader at Al Raby, said she likes to draw cartoons but had never done mural work. “I like the whole thing, what it represents in the community,” she said. “It represents the African-American community and history.”

“I like that we get to put our ideas into something the community is going to see. I like that we put our all into something so beautiful,” said Jerry Gladney, a 10th grader at Al Raby. “It shows people who do the violence how much peace people want.”

Daylea Adams, a 10th grader at Al Raby, hopes the mural will prove something about the hearts and minds of youth in the community. “Sometimes, older people think the younger people ain’t good for nothing,” she said. “By doing this, we showed them we could bring something different to the world. Our message was to set out our hopes and dreams.”

But first, they had to finish the hard work, Lang reminded them. “All right. We’ve got to get this done,” he said when lunch ended. “Jerry, I need you to focus on the flower,” Lang added, and began to parcel out other assignments. Then, he turned to mixing grout in a pristine-looking tub. “We’ve got to christen this thing.”

Watch a video of the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

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