Last year, participants in Oak Park Education Foundation’s BASE Camp summer program, guided by the nationally prominent muralist Tracy Van Duinen, installed a testimonial to the late poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks in the form of a mural on a west corner of the middle school that bears her name.
This year, Van Duinen worked with BASE Camp participants, Oak Park elementary and high school students, and community members to extend a similar honor to the namesake of Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave.
Julian, a pioneering African-American research chemist and businessman, was also a local civil rights leader. When he moved here in around 1950, his family was one of the first black families to set down roots in Oak Park. Before moving in, though, the Julians’ home was famously fire-bombed twice. The chemist, armed with a shotgun, and his son kept watch over their home, sometimes from a nearby tree.
The mural, which rises to tree-like heights on the northwest corner of the school, takes the form of a molecular structure and incorporates features of Julian’s research, such as his groundbreaking synthesis of the soybean molecule.
Van Duinen said the scientific theme anchored the artwork, which also riffs on themes found throughout the chemist’s personal life and work — his persistence despite having his home attacked and his ability to employ other black scientists through his lab, among other things.
A large blue circle just off the ground on the bottom right-hand corner of the mural, is made of dozens of 2-inch and 4-inch blue tiles, which community members could purchase for $50 and $200, respectively, and carved with tributes to loved ones.
“We raised $10,350 — all in $50 and $200 tiles,” said Tracy Dell’Angela Barber, executive director of the Oak Park Education Foundation, noting that the fundraising helped offset the cost of BASE CAMP and the mural installation.
Many of the tiles, Barber said, are dedicated to Julian teachers.
“We were really thrilled that people would use this as an opportunity to pay tribute to teachers they value,” she said.
For Van Duinen, the Julian mural marks the second outdoor mural he’s helped create and install in Oak Park (a third mural that the artist spearheaded is located inside OPRF High School).
Van Duinen, who teaches art at OPRF, has installed murals throughout the country, but there’s something special about installing murals in Oak Park, he said.
“I think the unique thing here is the active nature of the community,” he said. “They really want to be involved. It’s not like other communities don’t, but in other places I’ve really had to search the community and plan things myself.
“Here, especially with the Julian project, the school itself and the parent groups reached out to us when they heard about the mural. For a community artist, that’s a great thing.”
Van Duinen said the Julian mural is mostly complete. Some parts still need to be grouted and there’s still a bit of touching up to do. He expects the mural to be totally finished in about three weeks. A community dedication for the artwork is planned for some time in August.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the tiles cost $50 and $100. They cost $50 and $200. Wednesday Journal regrets the error.