OPRF students work with mosaic tiles and mirrors as they build the mural in celebration of the 150th anniversary of OPRF. | Amaris E. Rodriguez

The celebration of the 150th anniversary of Oak Park and River Forest High School is already underway for the 2023-24 school year as participating students work through the summer on a mural showcasing their Huskie pride and leaving behind their own legacy for the next 150 years. 

The mosaic mural, which will be displayed on the west side of the building, was sponsored by the Oak Park and River Forest High School Huskie Booster Club, which donated $50,000 for the legacy item, which is being commissioned by OPRF visual art teacher Tracy Van Duinen, local Chicagoland artist Carolyn Elaine, and OPRF students through a partnership with the Oak Park Area Arts Council’s Off the Wall program. 

Van Duinen, who has been at OPRF for the past nine years, said the past few months were dedicated to the design process but now they have begun the building, which is expected to take six weeks to complete. 

Composed of a big huskie along with the date the school was founded, 1873, the colorful mural will feature a massive tree and leaves appearing to be blowing in the wind and across the wall of the school. 

The current rendering might not be the final design as students with the Off the Wall program work through summer to build the mosaic mural, which will be installed on a west wall of the high school for at least the next 50 years. | Provided

Trying to pull students into every aspect of the project, encompassing the idea of a collaborative effort, student Kaspian Murray, 16, helped with the initial design process and presented options to the school board. 

Proud of the project, Murray said he had a direct hand in bringing in the full face of the huskie into the design. 

“Just getting my hands on it,” Murray said. “It was really fun, and this is something that will be going on the wall for I don’t know, a century or more. It will probably outlive me so just getting my name on that credits wall is going to be really cool.” 

Murray is one of 13 students who were hired to work on the mural through the Off the Wall program, which teaches kids how to create public art through a paid position. 

While the project has been carefully and strategically planned out, Van Duinen said students have experienced moments of improvisation and problem solving, for example if they run out of tile in a certain color, adding special touches to the mural.

Lauren Edwards, 18 years old and a recent graduate of OPRF, has been involved with Off the Wall for three years and participated in the creation of the “Parrot Pandemonium” mural created in the summer of 2021.

Edwards said she is excited for the legacy it leaves behind. 

“I love that it is going to be on the school forever, I think that is so cool,” Edwards said. “It is going to be something that will become iconic to the school.”

According to Van Duinen, the project will cost a little over $90,000 to complete. While the Boosters had donated $50,000, Van Duinen said through the collaboration with the Arts Council, they were able to combine budgets, increasing the amount allocated for the project. 

According to an OPRF newsletter, this is the first large visible arts project that the Boosters have supported for OPRF. 

Board of Education member Mary Anne Mohanraj had previously expressed concern regarding the design, deeming it not “adventuresome” enough and Fred Arkin, board member, raised questions of whether the mural was the proper way to use the $50,000 grant given by the Booster Club. Despite their concerns, both ultimately voted in favor of the project.

Elaine, who has been with the Off the Wall summer program for 18 years, said this is one of the biggest projects the program has tackled.

“In that regard, it has been more thinking it through and making sure we can get the materials,” Elaine said, adding that thankfully through the collaboration from all parties, the program was able to hire more students this summer. “Budget dictates everything.” 

Taking a step back to let the community voice speak through, Elaine said the students, Van Duinen, and the stakeholders have created a beautiful piece.

“They are very committed to this piece because it is their high school,” Elaine said. “It represents the school. It reflects community, the comradery with the students. It’s their energy, it’s their design and they are putting their heart and soul, and a little bit of blood, into this.”

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