Transforming a retaining wall into a dreamscape

Interns install a dreamy mural at Lake and Central

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By Michael Romain

Editor

For years, the railway retaining wall at the corner of Lake Street and Central Avenue in Austin was an unadorned slab of concrete holding up rail track. This summer, however, the wall has become the stuff of dreams. 
 
Roughly 20 young people from Austin and Oak Park worked for three weeks on a mural whose design they said was inspired by the aspirations and hopes of area residents. 
 
"When we first came out here, we asked people questions involving dreams," said Erica Wallace, 19, of Oak Park. "We asked them what they would like to see and what was on their mind at the time." 
 
Wallace was among the 16- to 19-year-old interns, some of whom are currently studying art in college, who participated in the Oak Park Area Arts Council's annual Off the Wall summer internship program, which ran from June 13 through Aug. 5. 
 
Professional artist Carolyn Elaine, who oversaw the mural's design, said there was some initial trepidation among students who don't live in Austin about how residents of the area might perceive their presence.  
 
"When you're doing public art, you want to be the voice of the community," Elaine said last Friday as the young people put the finishing touches on the mural. "So when you're coming into a community that's not your voice, there are concerns." 
 
Elaine, who also oversaw the installation of a mural under the viaduct at Austin Boulevard and Lake Street in Austin for Off the Wall last summer, invited the students to talk to community members and to question their own experiences and dreams, and how they perceive the experiences and dreams of those in other communities. 
 
"We asked ourselves, 'What is it like when you live in your own bubble and what is it like to have to live in someone else's bubble?' We encouraged them to look at the dreams and aspirations of people who live on both sides [of Austin Boulevard]," Elaine said. 
 
The mural is rich in symbolism — a woman seems to be emerging from a chrysalis ("Is she escaping reality to go into a dream state or escaping a dream for a reality?" Elaine mused) and a butterfly depicts transformation or renewal. 
 
Derrell Little, 16, of Austin, said this was his first year participating in the Off the Wall program. From now on, he said, he'll feel empowered when he walks by this slab of concrete he helped transform into what 19-year-old Oak Park native Joey Oldach, who is going to college for interior design, called a "complement" to the Austin Town Hall community center right across the street. 
 
"When I walk past this, I'll feel part of it," Little said. "I'll know I did something to better my community." 
 
Zaria Gilmore, 21, of Austin, studies art history at Triton College in River Grove. Before her internship with Off the Wall, she used to work down the block from this mural. 
 
"I think that a lot of people who pass here every day will appreciate having some fresh artwork up like how Oak Park has on its walls," said Gilmore, who is also an artist. "I think it's a good thing and we've gotten a lot of positive feedback from residents." 
 
 As for her dreams? Those are practical.  
 
"I just want to be happy and stable," she said. 
 
A ribbon-cutting for the mural at Lake and Central will take place on Aug. 12, 10:30 a.m. There will also be a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony at a second mural located at 401-403 W. Washington Blvd. in Oak Park. Afterwards, there will be a reception at 35 Chicago Ave. in Oak Park. 
 
CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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