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The massive wall, 326 feet long and 8 feet high, stood in Clyde-Brummel Park for 16 years, a window to the soul of the South Evanston community around it.
After the shooting death of 13-year-old Marchelle Gibbs on Mother’s Day eve, May 9, 1992, the collective grief and hope of her neighbors spilled onto the wall and the mural they called “The Wall of Struggle and Dreams.”
Now children too young to have known Marchelle – and adults who perhaps did – are restoring the work in the spirit in which it was created.
E-mail and cell phones and old-fashioned flyers spread the word: The wall was to be reconstructed, the wood replaced and the original design repainted. Needed: community volunteers.
They were there in the dark Friday night, using up five cans of insect repellant while tracing the outlines of the design cast on the wall by five overhead projectors.
They were there from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, laying in areas of flat color with great big brushes and acrylic paints. They are invited to be there all this week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and next Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Mural artist Kiela Smith-Upton, who guided the creation of the original wall, has returned to supervise its restoration – this time with her 14-year-old daughter, Aletti.
Max Sansing, a fine artist whose skills Ms. Smith-Upton praises, is in charge of the painting. He plans to complete the details and put finishing touches on the mural in time for an Arts Week dedication in October.
“It feels good to be part of a project with such deep community involvement,” says Mr. Sansing.
Twelve-year-old Daniel Hall was there early on Saturday, waiting patiently for the chance to paint the first swath of electric blue.
His mom told him about the mural, he says, adding, “I just like drawing.”
“It’s nice to help paint it back the way it was,” says Luis Martinez, 12, who came with his 11-year-old niece Susana, both Chute Middle School students. They needed a stool to apply gray-blue paint to the huge arm and hand that hold off a Grim Reaper wielding needles and drugs.
Bright yellow belonged to Ramona and Martin Lindsey, friends of Ms. Smith-Upton who brought their 6- and 10-year-old children from Chicago. “I wanted to be part of a community art project,” says Ms. Lindsey, a teacher at Woodlawn Community School.
It is ironic, says Lamont Gibbs, that work is taking place just now. His daughter’s birthday was Aug.25; she would have been 31. Though the “empty feeling” never goes away, Mr. Gibbs says, dealing with it has become easier.
He admits to having strong feelings about the wall. A lifelong Evanstonian who refers to his current Rogers Park home as “Evanston South,” Mr. Gibbs talks about how the neighbors and City asked for his permission to create the project. “I gladly gave it,” he says. “I was proud that the community of Evanston felt enough of a loss to honor my daughter.”
So he says he “didn’t like it” when people began saying the mural might have “served its purpose,” referring to it as “an eyesore” and talking about painting it over.
Time and weather, not vandals, were the culprits in the wall’s disintegration, says Ms. Smith-Upton. Almost no one defaced it over the years, a fact she chalks up to “the power of the community process” that brought the project to fruition. “[Neighbors] watch out for it, take ownership of” something they are involved in, she says.
Involving the community was a massive endeavor. Karen Chavers headed the Evanston Neighborhood Conference back in 1992 and was among the leaders who helped bring together shocked residents in the wake of the shooting. There was a candlelight vigil, she remembers, and then an outreach campaign that culminated in the construction and painting of the wall.
The goal was to make the neighborhood safer for kids,” says Ms. Chavers. But first people had to get to know each other.
Local businesses and City officials rallied to help, she says. The Recreation Department brought services to the neighborhood; a Howard Street pizza place contributed free pizza and meeting space. Aldermen and groups like Brummel Park Neighbors, along with non-profits such as Youth Organizations Umbrella, pitched in. Ms. Chavers and Ms. Smith-Upton went door to door, distributing flyers and lending their ears.
Newcomers, many of them Caribbean or Hispanic, got acquainted with each other and their town, says Ms. Chavers. Organizers scheduled tours of Evanston.
And meetings where “we invited people to bring something from their place of origin,” says Ms. Chavers. They brought drawings, as well. And tales. When they decided to create the wall, she says, “it was not about art. It was about the community telling its stories, getting to know each other.”
Participants brainstormed, expressing their dreams along with their concerns. In the end, the largest part of the mural was devoted to hope. “You don’t want to get stuck in the problems,” says Ms. Smith-Upton.
She was a young artist working with the Chicago Public Art Group when the community interviewed and hired her as part of a plan to reclaim Clyde-Brummel Park. The playground was slated for new equipment, and there was widespread desire to replace the short chain-link fence that was the only safeguard against the Skokie Swift.
When the City again approached the CPAG last year about restoring the wall, Ms. Upton-Smith was available and enthusiastic. All the wood panels needed replacement, and planners decided to use the same expensive, marine-grade plywood that had lasted 16 years. Primed and waterproofed, the new panels now sit 3 inches off the ground and will have a drip cap installed on top to minimize deterioration.
Ms. Upton-Smith, now an experienced mosaic artist, consults with teachers about murals. Surveying the wall that was one of her first projects – and the volunteers immersed in re-doing it — she is still impressed with its scale and impact. “Murals relate to you physically,” she says.