A few weeks ago, Oak Park artist Jonathan Franklin was in the middle of painting a mural on the North Boulevard Green Line embankment when he had an experience unlike any he’s had before.
Franklin noticed that an older man had been watching him from across the street. The man eventually approached him and asked to speak to him. As Franklin climbed down his ladder, he realized the man looked like he was on the verge of tears. Franklin asked if he was all right.
After a few moments, “he confided that his daughter had suffered a devastating accident just a few days earlier and was currently in the hospital,” Franklin said in an email. The girl was now completely paralyzed. Franklin said he was at a complete loss for words.
The man then asked — looking a little embarrassed, Franklin said — if Franklin could put his daughter’s name somewhere in the mural. Franklin said, “of course.”
The girl’s name was Katie, the man said, and his last name was Wahl. Franklin added the name to some patterned shapes on the mural. He decided to call it “Katie’s Wahl,” and said he hoped she’d be able to visit someday.
“Katie’s Wahl” is part of a program in its third year, sponsored by the Oak Park Area Arts Council. The village set aside $15,000 this year for 15 artists to create works of art on the railroad embankment. Interested artists can apply starting in the spring for a spot along the embankment, said Camille Wilson White, executive director of the arts council.
There are no specific themes the artists must adhere to, she said, as long as they’re mindful that this is public art. They have finished recruiting for this year, but more information will go out in January.
As he was working on “Katie’s Wahl,” Franklin said he noticed that another piece he did on his own about nine years ago looked old and faded. He decided it needed some touch up, so he headed up the ladder again.
This time, Franklin was approached by a man named Mike, who told him he was homeless and mentally disabled. Mike had never painted before and asked if he could help, so Franklin told him to paint some stripes on one of the three heads in the painting.
“He kept asking, ‘How am I doing?’ and ‘What happens if I make a mistake?'” Franklin said. But he assured his apprentice that he was doing great. Mike was so enthusiastic about the project, he asked if he could help the next day and he did.
Like the experience with Katie’s Wahl, Franklin said this experience was really moving, and he enjoyed sharing his work with someone else. He told Mike he would call the second piece “The Three Mikes.”
In both cases, Franklin said, he didn’t fully process the significance of the events until afterward. He said he didn’t think his work could have that kind of impact on someone else.