The murals are seen along the train tracks on Central Avenue on Monday, Jan. 2, 2022, in River Forest. | Alex Rogals

On a hot day in the summer of 2016, Central Avenue in River Forest was more alive than usual. Crowds of children gathered near the rectangular concrete slabs under the train tracks, not far from their homebase of The Little Bits Workshop, 411 Park Ave.

Giant black and white photos the size of the rectangles were taped to the concrete. The huge portraits were of famous faces from River Forest such as candy manufacturer Franklin Mars, big band leader Lawrence Welk, and radio producer “Angel” Harvey. The children approached the walls which showed a complex paint by number, with the whole puzzle creating an intricate mural. 

The murals were finished in the summer of 2017. But time left them worn and in need of rehabilitation. Now they have been restored.

“There’s a level of excitement that happens organically with a project like this,” said Liita Forsyth, 56, owner of the maker space Little Bits Workshop and leader of the youth who painted the murals. “You don’t ever know which direction it will go and where it will sprout, and it’s fun to see that.”

The murals are seen along the train tracks on Central Avenue on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in River Forest. | Alex Rogals

As the years went by, the 14 faces slowly became less defined, with the colors fading as minerals in the concrete seeped through the paint. Forsyth approached the village earlier this year to ask that someone take the time to restore the murals. Firefighter Paul Zipperich and his wife Julie Zipperich were recommended for the project, and recently completed the restoration of the murals

While Forsyth was invested in this project it was too big an effort to fix by herself.

“There’s a point at which there is only so much of you, you can’t do it all,” said Forysth. “If you can involve more people and get some help, that’s wonderful.”

Village Administrator Brian Murphy led the search effort to find an artist to rehabilitate the murals. “I have to give full credit to Fire Chief (Thomas) Gaertner for introducing me to Paul’s talents,” said Murphy. 

Murphy reached out to Gaertner, who had the perfect suggestion for the project.  “It just so happened that Paul had recently told me about the work that he and his wife Julie had been doing in the past,” said Gaertner. “Timing is everything I guess!”

Thanks to Gaertner’s suggestion, Paul, 53, and Julie, 52, are the artists behind the rehabilitation effort. They live in the Chicagoland area, and have been married for 20 years, with five children.

This is not the first art project they have worked on together. The Zipperich’s started to work together through house painting, which eventually led to side jobs doing murals, most recently the rehabilitation of the portraits and the Keystone Mural.

“Julie is the artist,” said Paul, “But I can follow directions.” Together, they run Curious Creations Murals, which Paul says is a way of giving a name to the work they do together.

The Keystone Mural was dedicated to Kathleen Kurrle, an active member of the River Forest community who died of cancer. Before her passing, she asked that instead of a headstone, she could have a mural. Around 80 members of the community came together to paint the mural, each contributing their own piece. The finished scene includes trees and flowers, people, the sun and moon, and other parts of nature.

The Zipperich’s began rehabilitation work on the portraits last summer and finished  the Keystone Mural in September. They volunteered their time for this project, totaling  two days of work. The Village of River Forest funded the project, providing $200 of supplies.

While Forsyth didn’t have any worries about how the rehabilitation of her murals would go, she is very happy with the final results. “We lucked out with Paul and Julie,” Forsyth said. “There has to be a certain level of trust with a project like this.”

 When Forsyth asked the village to find someone to restore her project, a situation occurred in which questions of the ownership of public art could be asked. Who is ultimately responsible for public art?

Chantal Healy, the executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group offered some insight into how public art projects work.

Healy said there are different protocols in place to determine who is responsible for rehabilitating public art depending on how the artwork is commissioned. If the work is commissioned by a city, then the city is ultimately responsible for it.

However, if the work is commissioned by an organization or an individual, then those parties are responsible for it.

“Public art encourages public investment, and is tied to ownership in communities,” said Healy. “It can be a source of placemaking, it can be innovative, there are multiple impacts.”

Local artists are very excited about the impact their murals have on the community, and the importance of public art in Oak Park and River Forest.

“Public art allows questions to be asked and/or ideas presented to wide audiences that relate to cultural, social, and political issues,” said mural artist Jonathan Franklin in an email. Franklin has painted 7 murals through the Oak Park Area Arts Council Mini Mural Project. “The murals speak to the diversity and backgrounds of the artist and their range of subjects and styles.”

Lewis Lain has painted four murals through the same program. “Public art captures a moment in time. It can be transformative, it can bring social justice,” said Lain in an email. “Public art can remind us of who we are and where we have been.”

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