Evanston is looking a little more colorful lately – and it will last long after the burst of autumn color has faded. Thanks to public art initiatives that promote local talent of all ages, railroad viaducts and empty City walls are being transformed into public canvases that build a sense of community.
Lead artist Damon Lamar Reed and visual artist Terrence Haymer became involved in the mural project on the west wall of Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center at 1823 Church St. through Mr. Reed’s affiliation with the Chicago Public Art Group, a non-profit internationally recognized coalition of professional artists. Mr. Reed designed the mural with input from local residents, Evanston 5th Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons and staff from the Evanston Arts Council.
Mr. Reed described the project. “The mural theme is called ‘Vision Board.’ The young couple in the mural just bought a house and moved into the neighborhood, and is starting a business. They are realizing their dream that they put on the vision board [in upper left corner of the mural]. They are creating their destiny with their vision board. The mural includes an adjacent wall with the statement, ‘Where there is no vision, there is no hope.”
The mural’s location is also significant to Mr. Reed as it is painted on the wall of Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center, named for Black business-owners and longtime residents Thomas Gibbs and William Morrison. Mr. Reed, who received his B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute, is a multidisciplinary artist whose works can be seen around Chicago and around the Midwest.
Working in Evanston had special meaning for Mr. Haymer as well. The artist said he is grateful to Evanston’s Shorefront Legacy Center, where he received one of his first opportunities as a young apprentice artist and illustrator. Shorefront is a non-profit organization dedicated to recording and preserving the experiences of African Americans living in Chicago’s North Shore communities, especially Evanston.
Mr. Haymer also participates in the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce (CGCT) through his work in the Critical Arts Series. CGCT seeks to empower kindergarten through high school students by creating local, culturally relevant, justice-based curricula that originate from the students’ lives.
The following is a quote from Mr. Haymer about the critical role that art instruction plays in school curricula, from the CGCT website. “Students today live and work in a technological society. Such a hi-tech world calls for a rapid lifestyle that requires proficient visual literacy. Art is the key to developing this literacy as it provides a profound lens through which students may perceive and respond to the visual world. Art education is vital in a balanced school curriculum, offering a component of visual literacy students need to experience the world with keen awareness and discerning judgment. Comprehensive art curricula should be conceptually based and fuse together creative and critical thinking skills to enable students to contribute to the world as self-aware and self-governing members of society.”
Evanston underpasses are also being brightened by new murals this year. The north and south walls of the Church Street Metra underpass at Church Street and Maple Avenue feature murals by Chicago-based artists Jeff Zimmerman and Anthony Lewellen in partnership with Downtown Evanston. Mr. Zimmerman’s mural with portraits on a largely white abstract background is a welcoming sight for Evanstonians and visitors alike. The other side, created by Mr. Lewellen, is a colorful mix of illustrations of a burger, a taco, a dumbbell and a microphone.
Artist Cheri Charlton and Art Encounter teaching artist Betsy Zacsek collaborated with the Evanston Girl Scouts to realize their dream of painting a 100-year anniversary mural on the south wall of the Lake Street Metra underpass. The pair supervised over 200 girls ages 6-16 in all kinds of weather to complete the illustrative mural.
Both the Church Street and Lake Street Metra underpass murals are part of the public art initiative, Evanston Mural Arts Program (EMAP), launched in 2017 through the non-profit Evanston organization Art Encounter. The program works with the Evanston Arts Council, local business districts and community groups to uplift neighborhoods with murals.
Most of Evanston’s murals are painted or applied directly on a wall, ceiling or other permanent surface. A few, however, are painted on large canvases or wood panels, which are then attached to a wall. An example is the three “zip code” murals painted on wood panels, installed on the exterior brick wall of the Alley Gallery at 1712 Sherman Ave.
Visual artist Jason Brown collaborated with Art Encounter and EMAP to create a design for each of Evanston’s 60201, 60202, and 60203/08 zip codes. The “zip code” murals, unveiled on Nov. 8, were painted by over 200 children and their families at Evanston summer festivals, including the YEA! (Young Evanston Artists) show, Evanston Chamber of Commerce Artisan Fest and Evanston Streets Alive!
Mr. Brown has worked as a community arts advocate and organizer in the Evanston community since 2013. In his work for both public and private spaces, the artist investigates the idea of place and space and how they intersect with identity. His design practice is called Geocommunetrics, a term created from the ideas of place-based (geo), community identity (commu), and calculated imaging (netrics).
On the website voyagechicago.com, the artist explains that the linear patterns in the “zip code” murals are derived from numerical values in zip codes, graphed on a grid to create a representation of the place a person calls “home.” The idea is that these abstract, geometric patterns help people remember their home places, its people and its importance to them. The value of collaboration – what people can make together, or perhaps can experience together – is central to Mr. Brown’s work.
All of the recent murals are collaborative, community-focused projects that have the shared benefit of making Evanston a welcoming, walkable city that people want to live in and visit.