How murals bring history to new Naperville development

Five murals planned for the wall of the new Riverwalk path will depict historic life along the DuPage River at the Water Street District in downtown Naperville.

The murals will be part of the district, where a new hotel, banquet center, shops, restaurants and parking garage are expected to open this fall.

Santa Fe-based artist Debora Duran-Geiger is creating the murals in a partnership between Water Street District developer Marquette Companies, private investors and the public art nonprofit Century Walk Corp.

Once the $93 million development is complete this fall, the art will remind visitors of what used to grace the 2.3-acre site on the south bank of the DuPage River and what life was like there in earlier days.

"It's a very artistic and neat thing," Brand Bobosky, Century Walk chairman, said about the collection of murals, which will be Century Walk's 48th piece of art. "It's historic and appropriate for the location with various scenes in Naperville from that time."

There was the old Main Street bridge, where people would go fishing. In the winter, there was ice skating and ice harvesting. Diversity began to build as immigrants entered the city. On Water Street, there was a Greek Revival house, complete with columns. And just a block away was the Pre-Emption House, the city's first hotel.

Duran-Geiger's creations will show all of these elements, drawing from photos she accessed with the help of Bryan Ogg, the Naper Settlement's curator of research.

"I looked at our photo collection and tried to pull as many images of the river itself and of Water Street," Ogg said. "What we found were scenes from all the different seasons ... Those were the inspiration."

Duran-Geiger said she's taking pains to make the images accurate. In one early sketch of the first piece featuring the old Main Street Bridge, she said she drew a mill in the wrong location and had to reorient the design.

Using 8-inch square porcelain bisque tiles that don't absorb water (so they won't be wrecked by the freeze/thaw cycle of suburban winters), Duran-Geiger's kiln-fired art is more painting than mosaic.

"I've taken different techniques from different cultures around the world," she said. "This is how I create my own style."

Her process includes applying color over unfired glazes, using a glaze scratching technique and combining opaque, translucent and textured glazes on tiles to give her pieces a layered look.

"I'm trying to create texture so when you look at it you'll want to go up and touch it," she said. Touching is encouraged.

Nick Ryan, CEO of Marquette Companies and one of the private investors in the murals, met Duran-Geiger last year when she made her first appearance at the Naperville Art League's Riverwalk Fine Art Fair. Her husband, Michael Geiger, lived for a time in Naperville and suggested she attend to sell her art. She called it a "true artist's dream" to meet a client in such a lucky way and happen into a project depicting a town's history.

Duran-Geiger's art will join other elements of Naperville history infused into the Hotel Indigo that anchors the development. Designers have been meeting with Naper Settlement Chief Curator Louise Howard to learn how to incorporate the city's heritage in industry and culture.

"They're all about blending the community elements into what they're presenting in the rooms and throughout the hotel and the banquet facility," Howard said. "It's inspiration they're trying to get from the flavor of what Naperville's history is."

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Artist Debora Duran-Geiger, center, displays a small version of one of five ceramic murals she will create for installation at the new Water Street District in downtown Naperville. With her are, from left, Brand Bobosky, chairman of the Century Walk Corp. public art nonprofit; her husband Michael Geiger; Peter Foyo, who has invested in the art; and Nick Ryan, CEO of Water Street developer Marquette Companies, which also has invested in the pieces. Courtesy of Marquette Companies
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