West Town Murals Celebrate Community Change in Chicago

New murals beautify the gentrifying West Town neighborhood of Chicago.
By: ANB Communications
June 13, 2010 - PRLog -- By Larry McCallum
Gazette Magazine, Chicago

Older neighborhoods often re-assert themselves through gentrification, and the West Town Community is experiencing such a transition. The arrival of struggling artists in West Town has been followed by an influx of young professionals and the emergence of upscale businesses. In addition, despite the socio-economic changes taking place, long-established businesses are tenaciously remaining in West Town.

In order to beautify the neighborhood and help spark further changes the West Town Chamber of Commerce commissioned the creation of a strip of four 25-foot murals to embellish the viaduct where Chicago Avenue and Lessing Street intersect. The murals are on the south side of Chicago Avenue just one block west of Halsted Street.

Darci O’Connell, a member of the chamber, has several art-related businesses including Architrouve Gallery. She is elated over the art project. “This area has made dramatic improvements in the last several years.” O’Connell said. “Out goal was to beautify the viaduct on this busy street with the talents of the local artists selected.

“We also wanted to enhance the promotion of the West Town neighborhood by mirroring the West Town logo and street banners in the border of the artists’ design,” she continued. “We are further pleased to understand that several of the artists have secured other commissions in the area based on their exposure in this project.”

The four artists who participated in the project were selected from 15 competitors. They began work after the chamber obtained permission from Union Pacific Railroad to repair and prime the cement walls under the viaduct.  

The diversity of the West Town community is shown by the ensemble presentation of the work of four artists whose styles are as unique as the neighborhood itself. Sarah Lawshe’s bright yellow and orange mural is of a stylized group of smiling children holding a long yellow arrow pointing west, which states, “West Town – It’s Our Town!” This Columbia College student was assigned to delineate acknowledgements on the far west part of the wall, thus “framing” the four murals at both ends and balancing the bright color.  

The feeling of a photograph from a distance is achieved by Augustina Droze’s mural of the intersection of Chicago and Ogden Avenues, which ranges from the high culture of St. John Cantius Roman Catholic Church to the everyday familiarity of CVS Pharmacy and the Windy City Café. Two bicyclists, one behind the other, are most impressive and add a striking note of drama to the entire perspective. From a distance, this scene looks as if one could walk right into it.

Plamen Yordanov, a Bulgarian artist who resides in Chicago, chose to paint a historical scene of Chicago Avenue in a 1950s. There is a near-Cubist approach contained in the background with his abstract treatment of warm and cool brush strokes. Reds, blues, and a touch of yellow comprise the main palette with very dramatic light/dark effects. The elevated tracks provide a silhouette affect toward the top and left side, while two figures are treated in a shadowy, mysterious manner.

Pilsen artist Anne Farley Gaines’ mural is of dining in West Town. She has coyly painted herself among the group, which includes a couple of her students and several of her artist friends. As a tribute to the commissioners, she painted Matthew Westfallen, one of the project directors who worked for the Chamber of Commerce, as the waiter holding a tray with a cup of coffee and fried eggs.  

Gaines’ mural combines several perspectives. At the far right is a segment that came with a huge gash in the cement wall. When she was first shown the wall Gaines was a big disconcerted, but further study gave her the idea to add a section on to the original study that would involve a creeping hydrangea covering the upper part of the Kasia’s pierogi deli building.

One of the best parts of doing the mural for Gaines was adding serendipitous touches such as painting the dogs of passers-by under the tables where people were dining. “My only regret is that I didn’t take the time to add cats,” said Gaines, a cat aficionado.  

One friend that she made during the painting of the mural was Robert Potter, a photographer who has done work for the chamber in the past. After he brought her a thermos of hot mocha coffee on a blustery fall day she painted him sitting next to a blonde who resembles actress Julie Christie at a table in front of Tecalitan. Later in the week the two of them sampled the Mexican delicacies in that restaurant. “I got so hungry painting this mural, all I could think of was the next meal,” Gaines said.

Another friend who assisted in the project was Narvaez Collins, who is one of Gaines’ students at the International Academy of Design and Technology.  “The proper mixing of paints was one of several other tasks that Anne assigned me to do,” Collins said. “I even posed for Anne as one of the figures in the mural.”

Westfallen was more than pleased with the mural and commented on the ambitious nature of the project.  “We started with local artists,” Westfallen said, “but we soon expanded the involvement via a city-wide data base. This opened the door to a wide range of artists’ styles.”

There are plans for a second phase at the same location, to complement the four artists’ works. “The murals are a unique blend of the past and the future,” Westfallen said.  “A nod to the past recognizes the continued presence of businesses that have been here for years while a view of coming changes will leave us open to economic development.”

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ANB Communications is a full-service communications consulting firm based in Chicago, IL. ANB Communications performs writing, editing, and public relations work for clients.
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