When a group of apprentice artists with Off the Wall, a paid summer internship program facilitated by the Oak Park Area Arts Council, were installing a mural on the Oak Park side of the viaduct on Austin Boulevard and Lake Street last summer they were approached by residents of Austin, who wondered aloud when a mural for their side of the viaduct would be installed.
The answer, it turned out, was much sooner than the residents might have thought. A chance encounter with recently elected 29th Ward alderman Chris Taliaferro, as he was coming out of the Austin Green Line train station, would provide the program’s lead artist Carolyn Elaine with an opportunity to pitch the possibility to the new officeholder.
Elaine said it didn’t take long to convince Taliaferro of the idea’s merits. Within a matter of months, she said, the alderman had communicated with Camille White, OPAAC’s executive director who founded Off the Wall 11 years ago, and the two began discussing ways of funding the installation.
“I first met with (Taliaferro) last year in September about possibly installing a mural on the viaduct’s east side,” White said. “The design for it speaks to hope and what home means to every single one of us.”
During one sticky hot afternoon last week, 17 Off the Wall artists, each of whom went through a rigorous application and interview process to take part in the 8-week program, labored in the basement of a three-story brick multifamily building on the Chicago side of Austin Boulevard.
They were on a tight deadline, squinting and breaking shards of ceramic and other material, some of it imported from Italy, to the soundtrack of a loudly humming fan, which wasn’t enough to stop beads of sweat and blots of perspiration from forming on their foreheads and t-shirts.
Allison Schiffner, 17, is in her third summer as an Off the Wall artist and is considered a senior apprentice in the program. She said the group of young people, whose ages ranged from 15 to 20 years old, were working both on the Austin Boulevard mural and one, dedicated to the late pop icon Prince, which would go up in Oak Park.
“We’re trying to install the Oak Park mural by next week hopefully,” she said. “The much larger one, which is going under the viaduct, we’ll hopefully have up in the next three weeks.”
The installation of each mural, Schiffer said, involves drawing a chalk line around the section of the wall where the mural will be, covering that section in cement and painstakingly holding the mural in place. After a two-day drying period, the mural is covered in grout and the tile is cleaned thoroughly. Sometimes, depending on the details of each mural, some painting is involved.
The technical process, however, took a backseat to the process of gathering creative content, said Elaine, who added that she insisted the young artists consult Austin’s residents before designing the art — a directive that transformed a public installation into an act of spontaneous community building.
“We asked them what they would like to see and how one wall could complement the other,” said Off the Wall artist Deon Moore, 18, of Austin.
As he was cutting some tiles to form the word “Change,” Oak Park resident Eric Mayer, 18, said that the community conversation entailed a certain sensitivity to the mural’s representation and symbolism.
“We knew that we wanted to be soft with the words we were using on the mural,” Mayer said. “We were going to use redefine or reconnect, but anything with re-implied means that something isn’t happening already, which can be offensive.”
“We’re trying to start a conversation,” said Schiffner, who noted that the students stood along the Green Line as commuters went in and out of the train station. One of those commuters was the notable anti-violence advocate and community activist Andrew Holmes.
“It was just so happened that Andrew Holmes was getting off of the train,” said Elaine. “We flagged him down and he really spoke about his view that a lot of what’s happening in the community is because of the breakdown of the family structure.”
The mural, a drawing of which was penciled on sketching paper that hung from the basement’s ceiling, is anchored by the phrase, “Encourage Change,” which spans the mural’s center.
On the left side of the mural, a community elder is depicted in silhouette and wearing a head of fall leaves, to indicate his late season of life. An analog clock is frozen in time above him. On the right side of the generational divide, a digital clock and a cell phone signals a present marked by youthfulness and technology. The hands of a father are stretched toward the outstretched hands of a child to indicate a mutual grasping for change.
For Elaine and the group of artists, installing the mural may be just the catalyst to the community transformation the work of art depicts.
“Public art, especially when you engage other people in the conversation, gives the community a visual voice,” said Elaine. “These young people took that message on. This gives them a voice in the community and it gives other people a voice in the community.
“When you include other people in the conversation,” she said, “they take ownership of the art. If you noticed, the mural we installed last summer under the viaduct hasn’t been tagged, hasn’t been touched or disrespected. When people feel like they have some say so, some voice, in the matter they own it. And, of course, there’s the pride in being able to create something that you know will be here forever.”