On what was the weathered concrete wall of the viaduct at Lake Street and Austin Boulevard in Oak Park a bricolage/mosaic mural reads, “You Are the Answer … to Peace, Unity and Education,” accompanied by universal imagery.

It is the latest in a line of Off the Wall (OTW) summer art projects, sponsored by the Oak Park Area Arts Council, offering a summer employment opportunity for local teens, age 16-19.

Since the program’s inception in 2005, mosaic murals have gone up on the sides of buildings and other facades throughout the village of Oak Park.

Camille Wilson White, the nonprofit’s executive director, hopes the city of Chicago will find funding to install a parallel piece of public art on the Chicago side during the summer of 2016.

For 10 summers, master artist Carolyn Elaine has been mentoring OTW “apprentices,” using an organic and collaborative approach to designing, creating and installing the mosaic murals, which are now permanently on display.

“Since we have been out here working under the viaduct, a lot of people are excited about it and asking, “Are you doing the other side?” Elaine said.

The feat of filling in this cement “canvas” — 900 square feet of space — meant forming partnerships with multiple players, including the village of Oak Park, Union Pacific Railroad, Oak Park Police Department, Oak Park Housing Authority and the Public Works Department.

“We worked with Public Works just to get the equipment to cordon off the street, and they came and power washed and scraped the walls to get it all clean for us,” Wilson White recalled.  

In recent years Bill Planek, owner of Oak Park Apartments has offered walls on several of his multifamily buildings as project sites. This year, Planek provided studio space across the street from the work site, said Diana Carpenter, former village trustee and special projects coordinator for Oak Park Apartments.

Both sides would have been completed this summer, she noted, if “Deborah Graham, alderman of the 29th Ward, had not been beaten in the recent election.” 

They are lobbying the new 29th Ward alderman, Chris Taliaferro, urging him to pick up where Graham left off. 

“I am interested in their project moving forward on the Austin side,” said Taliaferro.  “I will work very hard to make sure we get those funds to do the Chicago side.”

Meanwhile, 19-year-old returning apprentices Atlan Arceo-Witzl and Alison Schiffner led nine teen artists in putting the final touches on the Oak Park side.

“When we canvassed people on both sides of the street about what message do you want to convey, it was ‘You are the Answer,’ which is now in big letters under the peace sign,” said Schiffner. 

Witzl interjected, “There are hands and the two sides of the ying-yang symbol coming together because there is a big crack on the wall itself, so the idea was that the art kind of bridges across and unifies the imagery.”

The mural was formally dedicated on Aug. 16.

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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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