Antonio Cuevas, 17, a graduating senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School was marveling at his handiwork during an intimate ceremony yesterday to mark the completion of a hallway mural titled, “The Collection.” Cuevas helped install the bright ceramic tiles that gives bricolage artwork its beautifully broken quality, but he isn’t an artist. He wasn’t even an art student when he offered to help out with the work.
“I had no idea what I was doing, and I helped create that,” Cuevas said, pointing in amazement at the wall. “I never had him as an actual teacher. I just volunteered to be part of this team and he taught me as we went along.”
“He” is OPRF art instructor Tracy Van Duinen, a former senior art director for an international advertising firm. Van Duinen, who was hired at the high school less than a year ago, used to manage the advertising accounts of companies such as Sega Genesis and Hewlett Packard, according to a 2010 Chicago Reader article.
Van Duinen quit the advertising industry because the hours were long and the work was not very meaningful. He decided he’d teach and make murals instead. Van Duinen’s success as an ad guy has been followed by high success as a public artist and educator.
In 2001, he won a Golden Apple Award while teaching art at Austin Community Academy High School in Chicago. And in 2011, Van Duinen won second place at the prestigious ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan — it was the second consecutive time he’d snagged the $100,000 cash prize. You can see Van Duinen’s bricolage or mixed-media murals across Chicago — for instance, some of them line Lake Shore Drive underneath the viaducts.
Now an original Van Duinen graces the walls of OPRF. The work really has a shared creatorship. It’s the product of almost 20 student volunteers, with OPRF seniors Darren Edwards and Jade Browning responsible for helping manage all of that raw talent. Van Duinen said AP art history students helped develop the mural’s theme, which explored human portraiture.
“There are a lot of different levels to this piece,” he said. “You have the student work that is going to be revolving on a weekly, monthly, quarterly basis so that this is kind of an ever-changing wall. It’s never the same wall, ever. And the kids will always see themselves in it. But we also have community and parental voices. There are a bunch of tiles here that were collected from parents and community members, so their voices are in the mural also.”
Some of the tiles feature arts-related quotations attributed to famous individuals like Pablo Picasso: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
Principal Nathaniel Rouse, who said he last saw the work-in-progress several months ago, was speechless.
“This is just unbelievable,” he said. “It’s outstanding. I’m so proud of our kids, and Tracy is amazing. He’s been here 10 months and does this. This is what teaching is all about.”
“This is a piece that will change in the future,” said District 200 Supt. Steven Isoye. “It will change the lives of students because their art is portrayed. It’s just beautiful. I remember it when it was just a drawing, a concept. But even back then, there was definitely a vision.”