Visiting artists celebrate Mexican heritage in West Chicago
There was a girl who stood out in the black-and-white photographs, a girl with a violin.
Juan Chawuk saw her. He was inspired. And with the careful stroke of his paintbrush, he brought her back to life.
For the past two weeks, the Mexican artist has been working on a mural in West Chicago as part of local nonprofit People Made Visible's artist residency program, which has invited artists from around the world to lead a community art project in the city since 2008.
Chawuk's canvas was a set of 5-foot-tall, 3-D letters that spelled out the name of the city, painted in bright colors similar to those used in Mexico tourism ads.
When Chawuk arrived, People Made Visible Executive Director Sara Phalen gave him an overview of the city's history to help him brainstorm what to paint on the letters. She shared old images, including a photo of one of the first Mexican families to settle in the city in the 1920s. That's where he saw Julia.
Chawuk decided to paint her in the center of the mural, on the "H." Musical notes drift out of her instrument onto the rest of the piece, reflecting how much has grown out of the roots Mexican immigrants planted in the city nearly 100 years ago.
Residents, including members of the library's youth council and other kids, were invited to paint with Chawuk several times over the past two weeks in his temporary studio in downtown West Chicago.
"When the kids in the community can see somebody who looks like them, it's a great role model for them, and it also allows them to see a new way they can express themselves," Phalen said.
Adults were moved too. Phalen said a woman whose parents were Mexican immigrants said Chawuk's work was a perfect marriage of her American and Mexican heritage.
"Art is a universal language," Phalen said. "Even if we don't all speak the same language or we don't all have the same opinion, we can all appreciate something that is beautiful. We can all take away something that is unique to ourselves but still take part in a shared experience."
The mural will be dedicated during the city's Mexican Independence Day celebration Sept. 17. Phalen said it will remain mobile, so it can be moved to different parts of the city during future events.
Chawuk wasn't the only artist invited to take part in the residency program this year. Chicago-based artist William Estrada has been seen pushing a Mexican-style "paleta," or ice cream, cart throughout the city since May. But there aren't any cold treats in his cart -- instead, it's filled with art supplies to give anyone passing by a chance to do something creative, for free.
"People can just walk up to him on the sidewalk and do art with him," Phalen said.
Some of the projects Estrada has been doing with residents include printing shirts, making buttons and taking portraits of families that he prints on the spot. He has appeared at Blooming Fest, National Night Out, a library event and a family art event and has plans to attend the Mexican Independence Day celebration too.
Phalen said some families have been hesitant to go up to Estrada at first, but once they see other people walking away with fun pieces of art from his cart, they have been excited to get involved.
"People are so creative if you give them a chance to be," she said.