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Droplets, aerosols, respirators, masks and antibodies. Awash in details about the “novel” virus that is by now anything but new, many Evanston residents are isolated, bored and in need of a fresh perspective on life and the world.

Until the end of August, they can get “The Big Picture” with a program that is fun, free and appropriate for all ages. The local arts organization Art Encounter has devised a treasure hunt that takes participants on a self-guided tour of 17 of the vibrant murals around town and invites them to interact with the paintings as they see them.

“A friend brought the idea to us,” says Lea Pinsky, Executive Director of Art Encounter. It is a game particularly suited to The Year of the Coronavirus. In a season bereft of summer’s usual pleasures, The Big Picture offers entertainment without compromising safety. It takes place outdoors, where the virus is less threatening, and it need not involve a group. A mask is no hindrance, and the hunt can either be accomplished all at once or undertaken in multiple sessions.

Ms. Pinsky has an insider’s acquaintance with murals. She and her husband, Dustin Harris, have been working together to create large-scale public art in Evanston and Rogers Park for 15 years – since before their 2008 wedding. They have collaborated on 24 murals and have each painted eight solo. The two, who met at Evanston Township High School but lost touch for some 15 years afterward, bring varied art experience to their work as well.

Ms. Pinsky’s first career was in theater. A drama major at New York University with a master’s degree in Performance Studies, she followed a path that led to Broadway before deciding she did not want to be an actor. After a move back to Chicago, she held several positions involving youth and arts education.

On returning to Evanston, she stepped in to lead the organization founded in 1978 by Ellen Kamerling, Bonnie Hartenstein and Lea’s mother, Joanna Pinsky, who still serves as Artistic Director.  The organization’s mission was to educate, empower, and connect people of all ages and backgrounds through interactive encounters with visual art. They developed a unique discussion method that helps people discover artistic concepts while sharing their own perceptions. They started with discussions about art and branched out with educational outreach programs in schools and senior residences. In less dangerous times, this work continues.

Art Encounter also arranges tours of galleries and studios and travel adventures in the U.S. and abroad, creating situations for participants to meet with and relate to art and artists.

In 2017, Art Encounter introduced a third type of programming, the Evanston Mural Arts Program. EMAP’s goal is to beautify neighborhoods by partnering with community organizations, youth groups, schools, and business districts to produce murals. To date, EMAP has worked with 28 partners, including Evanston Art Center, Main Dempster Mile, Downtown Evanston, Evanston Girl Scouts, and Y.O.U. to create 11 large-scale murals in seven wards.  

 EMAP projects, Ms. Pinsky says, are “responsive.” Partnering organizations initiate the plans; EMAP pairs each group with a professional artist. Sometimes youth work along with the artists to complete the murals.

The Big Picture Treasure Hunt takes a closer look at murals many people have glimpsed only from a moving car. The hunt begins with an online map of all 17 of the murals and continues with prompts and questions for each work. Short interviews billed as “Minute With the Muralist” are available online to enhance the experience.

At each stop, the online instructions pose four questions. Ms. Pinsky says they fall into four categories. One question requires looking, for example, Which color stands out?  How many squares are there? Another calls for interpretation and has no “right” answer: What time of day do you think it is in the mural? A third involves the imagination: If you could ride this train, where would you go? And the fourth concerns the artist: What has the artist done here?

There are multiple opportunities for the viewer to snap selfies and an invitation to post them on social media.

 Those who visit at least three murals are eligible to enter a drawing for real treasure – gift cards and other prizes from Blick Art Materials. A map and guide to The Big Picture appear online at artencounter.org.