Constable: Perfecting the art of neighborhood diversity
A skilled painter takes a palette of diverse colors and expertly blends them into a beautiful work of art. Lifelong artist Carol Keene is doing that with the families in her Buffalo Grove neighborhood.
What could have become a summer focused on the differences between a 74-year-old white woman and her young immigrant neighbors has blossomed into outdoor community painting lessons where everyone's voice is heard and respected.
The unexpected harmony started slowly.
"She would wave to me," says Revathy Rajeev, a 12-year-old girl who recently arrived from India and is living in an aunt's house in the neighborhood. "It's the first time I met someone in America. She treats me really nice. I love her."
Sitting at her window this spring while she recuperated from what doctors suspect was COVID-19, Keene watched dozens of kids in the neighborhood, many of them recent immigrants, riding bikes and scooters and playing in the street as the weather got warmer. In her youth, she says, similar packs of neighborhood kids were often branded as a bunch of "wild Indians," a term that has grown more widely recognized as offensive since she was a kid. With divisiveness-fueling online content these days, that sort of environment sometimes festers into some viral video of an angry white woman shaking her fist and complaining about a bunch of brown-skinned kids changing her neighborhood.
But that's not what happened.
"I watched them. They changed me," Keene says. "They play in the street. They don't argue. They don't complain. They don't bully."
Revathy, still attending online school in India that starts at 10:20 p.m., often stopped riding her bike on afternoons when she spotted Keene watching from a window. She'd put down the kickstand and wave.
"On a day when I was able, I walked out to introduce myself and ask her name," Keene says. "She told me I'd never be able to pronounce it. 'Call me whatever you want,' she said. I named her Sweet Angel."
Separated by 62 years and vastly different backgrounds, the two quickly found common ground.
"I told her I was an artist, and she said, 'I want to be an artist,'" remembers Keene, who ventured back inside her townhouse boasting two studios and more than 2,000 paintings to show Revathy a piece she had done of plants blowing in the wind. Revathy was so impressed she called over other kids from the street.
"Look at the movement she captured in that painting," one boy said.
"Look at the sunlight on those weeds," another offered.
"They loved everything about it, and I thought, 'I have new friends,'" says Keene. She volunteered to teach the kids how to paint, setting up an artists' colony in her yard on the grass near where she puts out water and feed for her visiting ducks, a couple of mallards she named George and Gracie after the Burns and Allen comedy team that the kids, and their parents, are far too young to recall.
That first lesson on a blistering hot day drew about 20 kids. They worked together to create a beautiful landscape painting, which Nitin, 9, and his sister Nethra, 6, brought to parents Pradeep Balakrishnan and Kiruthika Senthilkumar to hang in their home for a week, before it got passed this week to the home of young artists Shrimani and Koshol.
"The credit goes to Carol," says Balakrishnan, who says his children's "gadget time" is way down. "They are not watching much. They are into art."
A sign on Keene's window with only a large W and 3:00 draws more than a dozen kids to Wednesday afternoon's lesson, where they gather around a 6-foot easel and learn how to paint an abstract with Keene's collection of painting knives.
"If it isn't exactly what you want, make it what you want," Keene says, giving the children the power to choose colors and put them on the canvas.
"Spread it like peanut butter," Keene says.
"Like Nutella," says a youngster more familiar with the hazelnut spread manufactured in Italy. A parade of children add bold streaks of blue, yellow, white and pink.
"Nobody volunteers to do this kind of thing. It's wonderful," says mom Pinky Subudhi, as she leans against a tree to watch her son Raj, 12, and daughter Rishita, 7, paint with Keene.
"I'm having fun with all my friends, sitting down and learning," Raj says. "It's very nice to learn together because the pandemic kept us isolated."
Many of the kids have barely started school and don't know how to spell their names. The older kids help with name tags. Keene, whose website can be found at carolkeene.com, has learned how to pronounce the names of the children from many different nations.
"I didn't even know her until a few weeks ago. It's fun," says Anadita Samantaray, 14, who has lived in the neighborhood for four years and will be starting her freshman year at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire in the fall. Her mom, Nibedita Mohant, watches as Anadita and her 7-year-old sister, Aishwarya Samantaray, take their turns on the canvas.
"Carol taught me to paint, and now I have my own paint set," says Akshar Cheenepalle, 11, echoing the sentiments of several kids who rushed out to buy brushes and paints. "I actually like painting a lot."
All the kids call her Carol, except for one of the younger boys, who refers to her as "the grandma."
After he adds his red to the canvas, Arthur Babovich, 7, rides his bike for a bit before returning. His family moved here from Uzbekistan, and his mom, Angela, says English has been easier to learn than their native Russian, and painting has been a welcome addition.
Neighbor Neill O'Malley, who moved in with her husband, Ray, when the townhouses were built 43 years ago and many of the residents were Jewish, helps Keene with the cleanup.
"Being an ex-teacher, I was fascinated," says O'Malley, who retired from a career teaching second and third grades and admires Keene's work. "She should have been a teacher."
Keene, who supplies the canvasses, brushes, paints and other equipment freely from her personal stash, has been an artist in residence for several schools. She and her husband, Bill Keene, have been married 41 years and have four grown children and 12 grandkids.
Always learning, she took an art course that moved online during the pandemic, and added colored pencils to her artistic repertoire. She's illustrating a book for a Northbrook man who worked with Keene to expand his poem into a book. She's also finishing a series of "glitter-glam" Western art.
But it's the neighborhood children who put the twinkle in her eye and the smile on her face.
"It's wonderful," Keene gushes. "They are treasures."