Mia Salamone soaks her sponge in the water bucket, now blackened from hours of grouting. Excess drips down her legs, complementing her grout-covered clothes and a black streak across her eyelid. Filthy and exhausted, no one wants to make the long trip for fresh buckets.
“I’m sick of getting water,” someone moaned.
“I went three times today,” another complained.
“Will someone go with me?” Thea Petergal volunteered.
Caleb Woods grudgingly joined in, and they rolled the buckets away.
In the blistering heat, the other 10 young artists continued to spread grout for hours over the mosaic tile and into the cracks of the mural on the train embankment wall bordering Oak Park and River Forest High School’s south athletic field.
The artists are participants in Off the Wall, a six-week-long teen employment program in its third summer under the auspices of the Oak Park Area Arts Council. On July 19 the students, along with their mentors-master artists from the Chicago Public Art Group-completed their second summer working on the mural near Lake Street and Scoville Avenue.
This summer’s group faced new challenges. While tackling a new art medium in what was a first job for some, the artists were faced with transforming ideas into reality, followed by the tedious and demanding physical work on the wall in order to create a quality piece of public art for the community will enjoy.
Off the Wall started this mural last summer. The group constructed a pulse line that flows into a cloud, a person reading, a tree, and waves. Last year’s group titled their work, “It’s About Movement.”
This summer’s task was complementing the preexisting pieces with new ones, Carolyn Elaine, one of the master artists, said.
The first three weeks of the program were spent designing in the classroom. The artists decided to build on the pulse constructed in the middle of the mural.
“This wall has heartbeat,” the pulse line reads, “with every passing moment – transforms the intangible into a life force.” The pulse line is intended to run throughout the mural, bringing it alive.
New images include a carousel, horses, a planet and a bird. The horse on the carousel is connected to a new pulse line that flows into a horse taking flight.
The artists reduced the number of images this year, but included much more detail. In addition to the thousands of mosaic tile pieces, they used mirror and clay shards on the bird’s wings and in the horse’s face-all cemented on, then grouted. They also added quotes and individual words on tiles.
“This is definitely cooler than working any other place because we get to do art all day and get paid for it,” Woods, 18, said of the program.
The artists were recommended by teachers, interviewed, and chosen based on submitted portfolios.
Covered in grout, Salamone, 16, admitted, “It’s a lot more work than I thought because I’m kind of gross, but I like it.”
For many, Off the Wall was their first job, and Elaine said it was sometimes a challenge to get them started.
“They have no idea what it means to be here on time, to give a hundred percent, to work when you don’t feel like working,” Elaine said.
Woods gave up sleeping in late this summer. “The hardest part is getting up in the morning at like 10 a.m., which doesn’t sound too bad, but it is,” he laughed.
Master artists Sonata Kazimieraitiene and Elaine push their young charges to be fully involved in the artistic process from beginning to end and to keep going when times get rough.
“I want to make sure their first job is [one] they not only enjoy, but they leave here with work ethics,” Elaine said.
On the last day of grouting, the kids forgot an entire section. “Tell everybody they’re all fired,” Elaine relayed to Jerrett Crosby.
“Leave here and go straight to the unemployment line,” she teased. “We’re not leaving until everything is grouted.”
Previously, most of the young artists have worked only on individual projects. Collaboratively developing conceptual ideas and physically designing them was a whole new experience.
“The creative process to get everyone’s ideas together into something we could actually do was really frustrating,” Salamone admitted.
Crosby, 19, said the experience will help him prepare to become an architect where everyone’s ideas need to be accounted for. “Patience is one of the greatest assets you can use that I got from the program,” he said. “At the end, I believe everybody got a piece of themselves on the wall.”
Many of the artists expressed pride in their perseverence.
“It’s always rewarding to see them get to this point where they really start taking ownership and appreciating the hard work,” Elaine said.
“[The mural is] magnificent to me because I know how much work [I] put into it,” Crosby said.
Kazimieraitiene said many students might not even realize all they’ve learned yet. “Years later they may come back to the wall and remember those days when it was hot and hard,” she said.
Next summer Off the Wall will expand even further on the mural, but until then, Woods said the community should enjoy it.
Ken Moore, owner of Fit Force, brings his clients to run on the track most days. He has watched Off the Wall construct the mural since they began last year and loves it.
“In the evening you can see the whole wall glitter back and forth,” he said. Only recently did he go close to the wall and realize it wasn’t paint, but tile.
“[There is] a lot of cool stuff on the wall-a lot of quotes that people can come close and touch and feel and really absorb,” he said.
Salamone is curious to see what the next group will do. Crosby believes more artistic minds will make the wall even better. “It’s going to bring out the full potential in the piece,” he said.
“Just to see it evolving and continuing is such a pleasure,” Kazimieraitiene said. “I love it.”