Muralist gives new views for Glen Ellyn restaurant dwarfed by downtown development
The views out of a downtown Glen Ellyn restaurant seem to go on forever.
Looking through the windows, diners are transported to the street life of Mexico. People dance to a mariachi band. A vendor sells balloons -- all under a blue sky as far as the eye can see.
Muralist Christopher Cudworth worked his magic with a paintbrush to create those scenes and cover up what's really on the other side of the windows: A hulking concrete wall.
The Apex 400 development, a new apartment building, is rising next door to the Santa Fe Mexican Restaurant along Main Street. A parking garage that's still under construction stands almost right up against the exterior wall of the popular dining spot, blocking its southern-facing windows.
Stuck staring out at concrete, the family owners of the restaurant -- serving Glen Ellyn for nearly 40 years -- sought to give their customers new views.
"It was all about creating some perspective and some feeling of space," said Cudworth, a North Aurora resident.
Diana Martinez, a lifelong Glen Ellyn resident, came up with the creative solution to help the restaurant and asked her Facebook friends in January if there was an artist in the area who could compensate for the window closures.
Cudworth knew he could do the job.
"I just have great respect for the people who run these businesses, because one of the other things you see while you're doing this is how hard they work," he said.
"And that to me was the enormous motivation to do something that's reflective of their reputation and their history and yet provides some visual excitement for their customers."
The mural project became a collaboration between Cudworth and the second-generation owners of Santa Fe, siblings Reyna and Olga Jiménez. Their parents, Irineo and Teresa Jimenez, opened the restaurant and raised six children.
"It's a local institution," Cudworth said.
He first expanded an existing hacienda mural in the back of the restaurant to 22 feet wide. In the front, he stretched canvas over the two boarded-up, framed windows and painted from photographs that he was given and researched of San Miguel, Mexico.
"San Miguel is this beautiful city," he said. "And it has these big boulevards and these cathedrals, and then the street life is very busy."
Cudworth gave the sisters creative license so the murals would reflect their personalities and the mood of the restaurant. He also was willing to make changes as his work unfolded. Reyna Jiménez, for instance, wanted more blue sky.
"She was able to tell me really clearly, quite often, what was in her mind, and bringing that to life is a blast," Cudworth said.
He would arrive at the restaurant to paint before business hours, often at 7 a.m.
"Their cooks are already there," Cudworth said.
During the project, he was painting four to six hours at a stretch. He's a runner, a cyclist and a triathlete, but the work was still tiring.
"You're climbing up and down on the ladder a lot and moving things around and bending and stretching," he said. "I'm very fit, but I was tired mentally and physically tired."
Cudworth wasn't going to rush the process, but he had deadlines. The Jiménez sisters wanted the murals ready for the Frida Kahlo retrospective at the College of DuPage and the influx of exhibition visitors coming to the downtown. "Frida Kahlo: Timeless" was just extended an extra week to run through Sept. 12.
"Now, of course, there are banners along the ceiling like in the Mexican markets, and so it creates collectively a whole atmosphere in the restaurant," Cudworth said.
The murals create the effect of late afternoon sunlight, bringing the outside in and a sense of depth.
"I wasn't after absolute perfection because I didn't want it to look stiff," he said.
He's developed his style over a lifetime of painting. Cudworth first picked up a brush at about 12 years old.
He's built a career in marketing and writing. In the art world, Cudworth, an avid bird watcher, has sold roughly 1,000 bird paintings over his career.
"I've tried to do some evocative work that's more emotional and a little less literal the last five or 10 years because I was all about the detail with the birds and accuracy," Cudworth said.
He also wound up painting a mural for Sylvia Jiménez, another sister of the Santa Fe owners, in her restaurant, Bat 17, in Lombard. He's pleased with the finished work.
"It was both fun and rewarding," he said.