Breaking News Bar
updated: 8/12/2013 10:33 AM

Supporters hope new Wheaton mural celebrates diversity, togetherness

Wheaton mural celebrates diversity and togetherness

hello
Success - Article sent! close
  • Artist R.J. Ogren works on his mural, "Pearls of the Universe," on a wall at 1026 College Ave. in Wheaton. Inspired by a poem by Wheaton resident Mehret Asgedom, the mural aims to celebrate the city's diversity and the impact immigrants have had on its growth and success.

       Artist R.J. Ogren works on his mural, "Pearls of the Universe," on a wall at 1026 College Ave. in Wheaton. Inspired by a poem by Wheaton resident Mehret Asgedom, the mural aims to celebrate the city's diversity and the impact immigrants have had on its growth and success.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Former Disney artist R.J. Ogren says he hopes his Wheaton mural will be his masterpiece. "I've done some nice paintings, but I hope this will be something that will inspire people in some way," he says.

       Former Disney artist R.J. Ogren says he hopes his Wheaton mural will be his masterpiece. "I've done some nice paintings, but I hope this will be something that will inspire people in some way," he says.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Artist R.J. Ogren's Wheaton mural takes viewers on a trip through time.

       Artist R.J. Ogren's Wheaton mural takes viewers on a trip through time.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • When it's complete artist R.J. Ogren's mural in downtown Wheaton will be roughly 70 feet wide and 19 feet high.

       When it's complete artist R.J. Ogren's mural in downtown Wheaton will be roughly 70 feet wide and 19 feet high.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Wheaton resident Mehret Asgedom's poem inspired the mural by artist R.J. Ogren that will celebrate the city's diversity and the contributions of its many immigrants.

       Wheaton resident Mehret Asgedom's poem inspired the mural by artist R.J. Ogren that will celebrate the city's diversity and the contributions of its many immigrants.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Jeannine Clinton, R.J. Ogren and Mehret Asgedom all are playing key roles in the creation of a 70-foot-wide mural, "Pearls of the Universe."

       Jeannine Clinton, R.J. Ogren and Mehret Asgedom all are playing key roles in the creation of a 70-foot-wide mural, "Pearls of the Universe."
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Wheaton mural takes shape

 
 

A sprawling 70-foot-wide mural taking shape this summer just east of Wheaton's downtown aims to celebrate the city's diversity and the impact immigrants have had on its growth and success.

When it's finished, supporters hope the mural will help in some small way to bring the community closer together -- to remind us of what we have in common rather than what sets us apart.

It's a nice, warm-and-fuzzy idea, but here's the thing: It may be working. The project is still in its infancy, and already it has brought together an artist raised in St. Charles, a yoga studio owner who grew up in El Salvador and a teacher and poet who was born in Ethiopia.

The man bringing the mural to life is R.J. Ogren, a retired Disney artist who a few weeks ago began painting "Pearls of the Universe" on the east side of Jeannine Clinton's Essencia Yoga studio at 1026 College Ave.

When he's finished, Ogren hopes the $6,000 mural, funded primarily by the city's fine arts and community relations commissions along with private donations, will tell the story of Wheaton's immigrants and some of the individual journeys that brought them together in the heart of DuPage County.

Clinton's yoga studio would seem the perfect place for the painting and its message. For one thing, it's right across the street from the homes of many refugees who now live here. For another, Clinton herself fled war-torn El Salvador in the 1970s to find a better life.

"We have the whole world right here at our fingertips and it's amazing," Clinton says. "I'm so happy we will be sending that message of pride and inclusion and welcoming from this space to all of our newcomers."

Little did Ogren know when he took on the project in mid-July that he would begin his own journey with one of those very refugees -- this one from Africa -- and wind up telling her story in a way it's never been told before: By painting a mural inspired by a poem inspired by her family's own odyssey.

A masterpiece

Growing up in St. Charles, Ogren was inspired by a mural on the wall of the local library. It was a simple country scene with a young boy sitting under a tree, reading a book.

"I was 6, so the mural was probably a piece of (garbage), but it made me want to go to the library and read every day," he says. "My only hope is someone will one day be as inspired by this project."

Ogren didn't set out to be an artist. After being wounded during his second tour in Vietnam, he enrolled at the University of Miami in Florida where he studied architecture -- right up until he encountered calculus.

"In 1973, I moved to Orlando and began working at Disney, replacing the legendary 3-D artist Madame Leota (Toombs Thomas)," Ogren says. "During my time there, I put skins on human figures and animals and painted them with special acetone-based paints to make them look real. I've also worked on all of the sets and props in attractions like the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Hall of Presidents. It was a great time to work there."

Upon retirement, Ogren and his wife moved to Wheaton and became involved in Wheaton Drama.

"I started doing murals and designing more sets. I also run my own gallery in Geneva," he says. "This is the biggest mural I've ever done, though. I once did a set for Wheaton Drama that was 54 feet across, but this is way more elaborate."

The new mural begins on the south side of the wall with a star field that opens up to the beginning of creation, inching forward through time across the world depicting scenes from the pyramids in Egypt to the Mayflower's journey, to the invention of the airplane and the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island. From there, more than 140 characters representing cultures from across the globe will wrap back up into a glowing sunlit pearl on the north side.

"I hope this will be my masterpiece," Ogren says. "I've done some nice paintings, but I hope this will be something that will inspire people in some way."

His own inspiration for "Pearls," though, came from a seemingly unlikely source.

Mehret's journey

Born in Ethiopia, of Eritrean descent, Mehret Asgedom moved to Wheaton as a young girl in the 1980s. Though she's now in her 10th year as a language arts teacher at Franklin Middle School, she says she still struggles with "a disconnect, not fitting in."

Asgedom has turned to "fresh poetry" and Clinton's yoga teachings to help her explore those feelings.

"As humans, I feel like we go through life and have expectations and longings," she says. "Specifically for me, I have a love for this community and I've seen people reach out to me, but there's always a disconnect and feeling like I don't fit in some ways. I consider Wheaton to be a gift to myself and my family, but I don't feel as if I've ever fit in."

Her poem, "Pearl," is one of three she's written to represent the refugee experience.

"'Pearl' tells of the journey toward healing that refugees seek after experiencing different things in their life," she says. "I've always been a very reflective person, so elements of my own personal journey are included."

It's also the poem that came to Ogren's attention and inspired his painting.

Having her work interpreted in another medium and depicted in mural form is just another leg in her journey, Asgedom says. She hopes the mural reaches a much broader audience than her poetry.

"It's incredibly humbling to see that mural going up and being a part of that. That's such a lavish community response to the immigrant and refugee journey," Asgedom says. "R.J. took an individual pearl and created 'Pearls of the Universe.' I love his interpretation: We're all pearls of the universe and shaped by universe."

A precious story

When Ogren wraps up his work in the next few weeks, he estimates he will have used 75 different colors and created a mural that is 70 feet wide and 19 feet high -- just big enough to be seen by "many, many people."

But one person will have a better view than many others; Asgedom is one of those who lives right across the street.

"This is such a precious story. I can walk outside, sit in a chair and have a perfect look at the mural," Asgedom says. "On days when it's so hard to believe I'm safe and home, it will be so symbolic to be able to look outside and see the mural right across the street."

That feeling of safety and home, of course, is exactly what city officials hope the mural will come to represent for all residents.

It's not difficult to imagine the project's three key figures coming together one day soon to view the finished painting: the artist from St. Charles, the yoga instructor from El Salvador and the poet from Ethiopia all together, all in Wheaton.

Mural: Painter worked on Haunted Mansion, Pirates for Disney

Share this page
Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.
    help here