'Surreal' public art campaign brightens Elgin's storm drains

  • Artist Ali Cantarella of Chicago works on her painting "Flash Flood" last week as part of Elgin's storm drain public art campaign. The drain is at the southwest corner of Big Timber Road and Lyle Avenue.

    Artist Ali Cantarella of Chicago works on her painting "Flash Flood" last week as part of Elgin's storm drain public art campaign. The drain is at the southwest corner of Big Timber Road and Lyle Avenue. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin's latest public art project is being installed around storm drains in town, including this design on National Street near Kiwanis Park.

    Elgin's latest public art project is being installed around storm drains in town, including this design on National Street near Kiwanis Park. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Emalee Veerkamp, 16, of Osgood, Indiana, works on her design chosen to be part of Elgin's storm drain public art project. She was working last week in the Providence neighborhood on one of the three drains she was painting around town.

    Emalee Veerkamp, 16, of Osgood, Indiana, works on her design chosen to be part of Elgin's storm drain public art project. She was working last week in the Providence neighborhood on one of the three drains she was painting around town. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Artist Ali Cantarella of Chicago starts out with spray paint as she begins her painting "Flash Flood" on a storm drain off Big Timber Road in Elgin last week. She said it would take about four hours to complete.

    Artist Ali Cantarella of Chicago starts out with spray paint as she begins her painting "Flash Flood" on a storm drain off Big Timber Road in Elgin last week. She said it would take about four hours to complete. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 8/24/2021 2:41 PM

Elgin officials normally wouldn't be thrilled to see a woman double-fisting spray cans and painting the curb on Big Timber Road.

"It's kind of surreal," said Amanda Harris, assistant to the city manager for special projects and the arts, as she watched Chicago artist Ali Cantarella wield a pair of cans of purple paint to lay down the early layers of her project at the corner of Big Timber and Lyle Avenue.

 

Cantarella was one of 10 artists painting storm drains around the city in a public art campaign that aims to raise awareness about stormwater and storm drains as part of its New Works Program.

Twenty-seven locations have been decided on, but Harris said they're prepared to do up to 40 if community members or businesses nominate one in their neighborhood. Work will go on throughout the month.

"When we first started this back in March, it was not to this scope, but the submissions we got were just so incredible that we altered the program to allow for more of this incredible art," Harris said. "Seeing it go in is pretty great."

Cantarella was working on her second drain. The first was near Elgin High School.

"This is very much like graffiti in street art that would be frowned upon, except that it's approved and financed by the city, which I think is very funny," she said. "It's really cool, but also very interesting as a perspective shift about what is art and what is graffiti."

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Her design, titled "Flash Flood," features purple and blue storm clouds with pops of yellow lightning bolts, the clouds merging with the image of a face. "It personifies the power and strength of women and the tumultuous nature of a flash flood," she said.

Cantarella said the experience wasn't exactly what she expected.

"Everything about it was harder than I anticipated," she said. "It was more paint than I thought I needed, more time, harder on my body, more difficult surfaces, dirtier."

"I don't know what I expected, because it is a storm drain after all," she added.

Not too far away, in the Providence neighborhood, 16-year-old artist Emalee Veerkamp of Osgood, Indiana, was working on the second of her three art installations. Her high school art teacher found out about the public art campaign and had his students submit proposals as a school project.

"I come from a very tiny town," she said, "and I'd love to take this back and do something like it there."

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