Andrew Hoffman, right, reaches for some paint with the help of Ellie Burnham as they and 15 other middle school students work on a genetics mural under the viaduct at South Boulevard and Home Street in Oak Park, June 28. The mural project was part of a day camp sponsored by the Oak Park Education Foundation.Photos by DAVID PIERINI/Contributor

Oak Park + viaducts = pigeons. It’s a familiar equation, and it has caused quite a flap around here.

But here are some others that apply (literally) to one Oak Park viaduct: 1 1 = 2; 1 2 = 3; 2 3 = 5 … and so on. For about a year now, on the east and west walls of the Home/Forest Avenue underpass (flanked by North and South boulevards), have been the canvass for two unusual murals celebrating Fibonacci’s Golden Ratio and the genetics of Henrietta Flacks’ immortal HeLa cells.

Not your ordinary mural subjects.

These two really big pieces of wall art are now on permanent display due to a nod from the Village of Oak Park and the ongoing efforts and creativity of several middle school teachers along with separate classes of about 18 students each, enrolled in the inaugural and second years of Oak Park Education Foundation’s BASE (Build A Summer Education) Camp.

The camp debuted in 2010 with art, science, math and music sessions for area kids entering grades 1 through 9, says Deb Abrahamson, OPEF’s executive director.

Last summer, under the tutelage of Phyllis Frick, a sixth-grade science teacher at Brooks Middle School, the class introduced the equations of 13th-century European mathematician Leonardo Pisano (aka Fibonacci) to Oak Parkers through a mural illustration depicting his answer to the following mathematical puzzle:

A certain man put a pair of rabbits in a place surrounded on all sides by a wall. How many pairs of rabbits can be produced from that pair in a year if it is supposed that every month each pair begets a new pair, which, from the second month on, becomes productive?

You can find the answer on the east wall of the underpass. It is known as the Fibonacci Sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 … etc. What Fibonacci discovered was that successive numbers, added together and divided by each other, gives a ratio of 1.618, as the wall caption explains. Artists, architects and scientists alike consider these divine proportions to be the key to beauty. In this rendering, the concept is demonstrated through the spiral imagery of a sunflower, a pineapple and human growth.

Immortalizing Henrietta

But that is all so last year.

This June, Frick and company crossed the street to cover the west wall of the underpass with a mural about genetics.

“Think big,” the supervising teachers said, and our young, fearless science muralists did just that.

“J.C. Licht actually donated 20 gallons of paint to the project, which was awesome,” noted Jenny Roen, the BASE Camp coordinator.

“What this mural conveys is the story of Henrietta Lacks, the poor Southern tobacco farmer with cervical cancer who died in 1951,” explained Renata Voci, a 2012 OPRF High School grad, and River Forester who was Frick’s teaching assistant this year. During the planning stage, the high school senior happened to be reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. She pitched the idea to Frick, and the idea took off.

On a recent tour of the mural, Voci, who will attend Tulane University in the fall, explained that, during Lacks’ cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins, her tumor cells were taken without her knowledge and since then, those “immortal” HeLa (abbreviation of Henrietta Lacks) cells have become one of the most important tools in medicine.

“If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons — as much as a hundred Empire State buildings,” Voci said.

Tragically, she added, Henrietta Lacks remained virtually unknown. She was buried in an unmarked grave until 2010, and even today her family hasn’t received a penny of the profits related to the multibillion-dollar industry HeLa cells launched.

The art of science

The mural idea started percolating for Frick several years ago as she padded back and forth from home to work through the underpass.

“I’ve always wanted to paint those walls,” said the BASE camp instructor who is also certified to teach art. Her “light bulb” ignited just prior to an annual autumnal book club getaway with Abrahamson and a few other friends in her group.

At the time, Abrahamson’s BASE Camp program was in need of a new science/art experience, and Frick, serendipitously had this one in the wings.

A few weeks earlier Frick had been pedaling along on a 100-mile bike trip with her husband, listening to an NPR interview with the author of “Here’s Looking At Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math.” She had her “aha” moment when the chapter about Fibonacci came up.

“I can still vividly see the hill I was riding up in Wisconsin when I had the epiphany and knew that we had to do a mural about Fibonacci and make the spirals and everything,” she said.

With the help of a friend who is an interior muralist, in the back seat of the car on their way back from Wisconsin, they began fleshing out the idea, Abrahamson says.

“From the start I had this vision that we would do at least half a dozen murals in Oak Park, all related to science or math, and they would be kind of a walking tour for teachers to bring kids on field trips to learn those subjects,” Frick said.

Next year she is considering doing a mural on the work of Sally Ride, the former astronaut who recently died of pancreatic cancer.

Another possibility might be Lewis H. Latimer, (1848-1928), an African-American inventor who improved the newly-invented incandescent light bulb by inventing a carbon filament (which he patented in 1881) or, she mused, it could also be “the guy who invented perspective drawing — not da Vinci.”

Her former student, Cameron Duncan, 12, of Oak Park, has climbed ladders with Frick et al to sketch and paint that huge pineapple (on the Fibonacci mural) last summer and the Empire State building for the genetics mural project this summer.

“It was such a big wall, that it was hard to change from the paper to the wall [because] trying to design it and then putting the mural all together was very hard. But, yes, I actually am very happy with how it turned out,” he said.

Voci added that Duncan and his classmates also figured out how to write and edit copy to fit — on the very last day.

“[The caption] is a really good summary, with some detail, and the kids said it in 40 words,” she said.

In education circles, said Frick, pairing art with science to better understand the complexities of a particular subject is called project-based learning.

So an even better equation might be: art math/science = knowledge.

“When you do a project like this, you don’t just learn about Henrietta Lacks. You learn about DNA, what is the replication of a cell, and what is cell division, as well as how tiny cells really are,” said Frick. “After this, these kids will never, ever, ever in their lives, I am positive, forget who Henrietta Lacks is,” Frick she added. “They will be playing some Trivial Pursuit game when they’re in their 50s and say, ‘Oh, Henrietta Lacks, I did a mural about her when I was in the sixth grade.” I’d like to think these science murals are the things that will stand out for them the rest of their lives.”

More art, more walls

Installed on the wall at 1532 N. Austin Blvd., is “Flourish,” the latest “bricolage” mural created and installed by the apprentice artists in the Oak Park Area Arts Council’s “Off the Wall” teen summer employment program.

“When you look at this one, you will see that it is a giant lily,” said Camille Wilson White, OPAAC’s executive director. “The apprentices — which is what we call the teens in the program — wanted to create something that was very beautiful and would look smashing on that building … and they hit the nail right on the head.”

Around town, since 2005, teams of as many as 16 salaried teen workers, under the direction of master artist Carolyn Elaine, have been hired to conceptualize and create murals on the east wall of Terra Incognito at Harvey and Chicago, on the north wall of the railroad embankment at Lake and Scoville (OPRF High School’s South Field), on the sled hill wall at Barrie Park, and now this locale.

“When you speak about what arts can do in a village, a town or a city, I believe it can enliven a blank wall into a beautiful space. That is the power of art in a community. These murals are a perfect example of that,” Wilson White said.

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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