Painted and broken tiles, mirror shards, clay and teenagers hard at work are likely sights if you wander in the direction of Terra Incognito, 246 Chicago Ave., for the next few days. Despite the July heat, 10 high school and college students, one assistant and two master artists are spending a part of the summer creating a mosaic, a mural that glimpses Oak Park through the eyes of teenagers.
Rainbow colors, a large eye, a cartoon of the el and the words, “Express, Rise, Explore,” dominate the design, which stretches over a 7 1/2- by-30 foot wall, brightening up a small parking lot. It’s a mesh of ideas from local teens and an effort to convey the diversity and culture of Oak Park.
“I want people who walk by to think it’s catching to the eye,” says Jackie Schroeder, 15, who came up with the idea of sprinkling the design with colored bubbles. “I really want art for the sake of art.”
The teenagers, who are mostly Oak Park and River Forest High School art students like Jackie, are even getting paid (albeit minimum wage) for their contribution to our public art.
Camille Wilson White, executive director of the Oak Park Area Arts Council, has had this idea rattling around in her head for a long time, she says, and finally received enough money from the Village of Oak Park to bring it to fruition this year.
She wants the students to understand that “it is possible to do something you enjoy and get paid,” she says. Wilson White hopes this project, which is called “Off the Wall,” will eventually expand to pay teenagers who are talented in other arts, such as music and dance.
So far, beautifying Chicago Avenue has more than filled these teens’ allotted four weeks. For their masterpiece, the kids are learning a technique called bricolage, where pieces of broken tile, ceramic and mirror, found objects and clay sculptures are attached to the brick wall and then finished off with a layer of cement and grout.
“We want you to come closer and actually touch and feel it,” says Carolyn Elaine, one of the supervising “master” artists.
The experienced hands of Chicago artists Elaine and Sonata Kazmieraitis ensure that the mural has a purpose and plan. After a brainstorming session early on, they took the best ideas and created a colored sketch of the design, which they’ve worked off ever since.
The students bring a lot to the table, Elaine says. “They’re creative and very mature.”
Kazmieraitis agrees. “They’re thinking and they have a lot of ideas we work to get down,” she notes. In fact, the masters have had to rein the students in a few times, from doing painstaking details that no one will be able to see, for instance.
Since it’s public art, the adults also want to make sure that the mural will still be relevant in 10 or 20 years, and that it won’t offend anyone. Some students wanted to add scary faces or words like “agitate,” but the masters vetoed some of these ideas, since they didn’t fit in the upbeat, colorful theme.
The group spent two weeks doing preliminary work in the art room at OPRF, planning and then sculpting the bigger components, including the train, the words and the bubbles. They’ve been outside in the sun since July 11, doing the heavy-duty work of mixing grout and sticking tiles and clay figures to the wall.
“They’re working like beavers,” Wilson White says. “In all this heat, they’re going at it.” Because of the scorching temperatures, the kids are now working in shifts, mostly in the afternoons, and local restaurants and ice cream shops have been donating frosty treats to help. They’re hurrying to finish the entire mural by the four-week deadline on July 29, which is a short time for such a big project, according to Elaine.
Caleb Woods, 16, has enjoyed being outside and doing art all summer. “It’s fun to go out there and work on something that everyone will see and say, ‘I made this, I’m part of it,'” Woods says. He also has bonded with his grouting and tiling partners: “Being around so many talented people, it’s really kind of fun.”
“I think it shows a little bit about Oak Park,” Woods adds. “It shows that it values [art] and that it takes pride in the work that students do around here.”