Constable: Hoffman Estates photographer beautifies patients' windows

How Hoffman Estates woman changed patients' view

Opening the front door to their Hoffman Estates home, Shelly Lawler and Val Mazzenga invite guests into a visual wonderland.

“I call this side 'reality,'” Lawler says, her right hand arching toward a room filled with her husband's award-winning black-and-white images of the powerful and the weak from nearly every continent on the globe.

“And I call this side 'peace of mind,'” Lawler says, waving her left hand toward a room boasting her prizewinning colorful photographs of the whimsy and tranquillity captured exclusively within the boundaries of their backyard garden.

Looking to bring peace of mind to her husband, coping in the hospital with a medical reality in the wake of a stroke, Lawler found a way to create a new reality that literally changes a person's outlook on life.

In March, a year into his recovery from a debilitating stroke, Mazzenga, 71, returned to the hospital to deal with some complications. His bed on the second floor at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates was next to the outside wall with two large windows and four smaller ones.

“Our view was all windows, which would have been wonderful if something was there,” Lawler says. Instead, Mazzenga, a photographer with an eye for detail, looked out upon a bleak rooftop speckled with industrial heating and cooling ducts under a dreary gray sky. On his third day in the hospital, Mazzenga told his wife, “I miss your pictures.”

The next day, she brought in six vivid photographs and fitted them over the windows.

“The paper's a little opaque, so that allows the light to come through,” Lawler says.

The sunlight illuminating a cheery, lush garden with red and purple flowers and a playful robin perched on a birdbath did more than transform her husband's view. The scene transformed moods.

Patients, nurses, doctors, the chaplain and even the hospital president poked in to take a gander or snap photos on their phones.

“No one had ever seen what we had in his room,” Lawler remembers.

The project was perfect for the new Alexian Brothers Women & Children's Hospital, which had state-of-the-art facilities and lousy, depressing views remembers Laurie Miller, director of Pediatrics and Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

“If you are confined in your bed, you want to see something interesting,” Miller says. “We were looking for something to spice up the rooms.”

They hired Lawler, who converted the window views to beach shots from the Caribbean island of St. Kitt's, the skyline of Chicago, a graceful deer moseying through the flowers in her backyard garden and a collection of adorable farm animals she photographed at Cosley Zoo in Wheaton.

One nurse posted a selfie on Facebook of her standing in front of a beach scene, challenging her friends to guess whether she was at the beach, on a cruise or simply working at the hospital.

“They do start conversations,” Miller says of the 14 rooms featuring Lawler's art. “My favorites are the farm animals.”

The window treatments also cut down on glare, block ultraviolet rays and help solve heating and cooling issues. The hospital is looking for donors so that it can change the views with the seasons by adding new photos, such as “dogs running through the snow,” Miller says.

The oldest of seven kids growing up in a Glen Ellyn family, Lawler never imagined she'd have a photographic art career at age 56.

“I never took art classes. I never took photography classes,” says Lawler, who spent years as a model and a singer. She started singing in the Glen Ellyn Children's Choir as a fourth-grader, graduated from St. Francis High School in Wheaton in 1977 and went to DePaul University with an expectation that she might become an opera singer.

She majored in English and history instead and was awarded a scholarship to study at Oxford University in England. But she continued to sing.

“I paid off my college debts singing, and I was modeling all the time,” says Lawler, who was named Miss Chicago in 1983. She also had a job at the legendary Miller's Pub in Chicago, where she met the man she'd marry.

“He would come in at 2 in the morning after work and I'd be in there folding napkins,” she says, adding that Mazzenga, who started at the Chicago Tribune as a 15-year-old copy boy and went by his middle name because the photo staff had “too many Tonys,” always had interesting stories to tell.

Once, when they both had dates with other people, they ended up at Miller's Pub, their booths backed into each other, and they both realized they would have been happier dating each other. Mazzenga phoned later to ask Lawler to the 1985 press opening of “One Shining Moment” at the Drury Lane theater.

He had forgotten to secure the reservations, so the theater didn't save him tickets. He was given an empty seat with the Pritzker family. Lawler was seated next to two elderly ladies from Elgin. But their relationship blossomed, along with their careers.

She'd be singing in some exotic port or serving as the “international presenter” explaining a new technology at a business gathering, and Mazzenga would be photographing Mother Teresa, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, or the Sikh revolt in India.

They married on April 29, 1990, at the Long Grove Community Church in Long Grove. After Mazzenga retired from the Chicago Tribune, his wife helped put together a presentation of his photographs, and he traveled the nation, telling his stories and talking about his photographs.

In the spring of 2005, Lawler was on the patio studying their garden, which abuts wetlands, when Mazzenga brought out one of his old Nikon cameras and said, “Try this.”

“She knew composition,” Mazzenga says. “The first shot she made was wonderful.”

Her photograph of a bird, wings outstretched, landing at the birdbath, hangs in their home. Other photographs of her garden followed. A friend in Barrington invited her to show some of her photographs during a gathering in August 2005.

“Here's Val, a hall-of-fame photographer, in the garage staining frames for my shots,” Lawler remembers. “I'm not a photographer. My husband is a photographer. I'm Shelly.”

She sold $2,000 worth of photographs in six hours, and a business, Window Art Creations, was born. Doctors bought them to add peace to their waiting rooms. A church hired her to decorate their atrium for Mother's Day. She entered her photographs in juried art shows and won prizes.

Often printed on canvasses or cloth tapestries, her photographs sometimes are mistaken for paintings. But there is no paint involved. She prints her photos on a fine-arts printer with archival inks in eight colors. Her window photos are printed on an adhesive paper that sticks to a window and peels off easily.

“With this, there's purpose,” Lawler says of her art. “My customers are connecting to the garden, connecting to nature. Whenever I didn't work, I was in my garden. It all started in the garden, where I'd go for my peace of mind.”

  Legendary photographer Val Mazzenga wasn't fond of the dreary view outside his window during his March stay at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates. So his wife, Shelly Lawler, brought photographs she took in their garden and transformed the view. Bob Chwedyk/
  Photographs of vivid scenes in her own backyard transform into living creations when Shelly Lawler uses them for her window art. Her photographs change with the sunlight. Bob Chwedyk/
  Using photographs shot in her backyard garden, Shelly Lawler transforms windows into works of art. Bob Chwedyk/
  After Shelly Lawler converted these windows into works of art for her husband, a patient at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, the hospital hired her to transform 14 rooms in the new Alexian Brothers Women and Children's Hospital. Bob Chwedyk/
  Shelly Lawler's lush photographs printed on canvas often are mistaken for paintings. She also prints photographs on opaque adhesive paper that can be placed over windows to transform the views. Bob Chwedyk/
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