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.
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The poem that inspired the muralMehret Asgedom has been a language arts teacher for 10 years at Franklin Middle School in Wheaton, but was born in Ethiopia and admits she sometimes still has trouble feeling comfortable here. Her poem, "Pearl," is serving as the inspiration for a mural being painted in downtown Wheaton that celebrates the city's diversity and the contributions of its many immigrants. The poem:
Today I found a pearl, but it was not yet a pearl, and so I went to get sand.
Today, I found sand, but it was not yet sand, and so I went to ocean.
And when I got to ocean, it was not yet ocean, and so, I cried tears.
Then there was ocean.
But there was not yet sand, and so I waited.
When I could wait no more, I ran the length of ten thousand suns. I ran until there were no more suns, just darkness.
Tired I lay my face near the wetness. With my cheeks where my feet had been, I discovered looking back that trail behind me where my heavy feet plod had turned stone to sand.
Now there was ocean, and sand.
I looked around expectantly for my pearl, but saw no pearl. Tears came again achingly swelling ocean. I stopped weary, my breath matching slow tide and glazing over the waves.
There in the pure water was prize, not one pearl but TWO. Born from trial, blazing like new born sun, my eyes shone -- abalone twins.
Looking closer still, I stared in awe as they revealed the greatest pearl of all.
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.
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.
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