A ribbon-cutting ceremony on Aug. 13 marked the unveiling of a new mural at Curt’s Cafe, 2922 Central St. Swirls of vivid colors, striking imagery and the use of a single written word – “elevate” – add a sense of energy and vibrancy to the area around the nonprofit at Central Street and Lincolnwood Drive in northwest Evanston.

Mayor Daniel Biss, in green, assists lead artist Sholo Beverly with the Aug. 13 ribbon cutting for the mural at Curt’s Cafe. Credit: Heidi Randhava

Local artist Sholo Beverly created the piece to honor the students in the Curt’s Cafe workforce training program and celebrate the organization’s mission. Beverly was assisted by Curt’s students in painting the mural. But before the painting began, several of the students initiated the hands-on part of the project by putting “their handprints and words of inspiration on the wall to ensure their dreams and inspired thoughts remain embedded in the design,” according to a news release from Curt’s Cafe.

The cafe’s new executive director, Malik Kemokai, brought his son Maliki to the unveiling. When asked for his thoughts about the new mural, Kemokai said, “I am ecstatic, but this is really for our students, and also for our community.”

When the mural was almost complete, Kemokai said, “we felt that something was missing.” That feeling led to the inclusion of a word “that would help capture some of the meaning behind this project.”

That word – “elevate” – came from Curt’s student and mural painter Rashad Ponder.

The idea to include the word “elevate” came from Curt’s student and mural painter Rashad Ponder. Credit: Heidi Randhava

In his remarks, Ponder said, “The mural is based on elevating personal growth – to rise and elevate, achieve and lead. That’s what this amazing creation means to me.”

Rick Marsh, President of Curt Cafe’s board of directors, said he was “excited” about the new mural. “I saw it when they first started painting the outline, and I saw the excitement of folks in the neighborhood driving past it, seeing it unfold,” he said in an interview. “I saw the colors going up and the excitement from our students as well – just being a part of the whole process. And I think it’s been invigorating for this neighborhood – giving it hope and good feelings. It’s been nothing but positive.”

From left: Curt’s Executive Director Malik Kemokai, Board President Rick Marsh and Development Director Tami Manton admire the completed mural. Credit: Heidi Randhava

Curt’s Development Director Tami Manton told community members and visitors at the unveiling that the mural has been years in the making, and a dream of Curt’s Cafe. A community resiliency grant from the City of Evanston and the Evanston Arts Council helped fund the piece.

“The goal of the grant,” Manton said, “is to mobilize artists and social service organizations to improve the quality of life and amplify voices in underserved communities. With this goal in mind, we knew the importance of partnering with an artist who was able to work respectfully with our students to create a design that would express and elevate their thoughts, their dreams, their struggles and their passions.”

Manton said Curt’s Cafe had worked successfully with Beverly as a lead artist once before in its Highland Park Café, where she created a safe space to work with students in open dialogue.

In her remarks, Beverly thanked the Evanston community for the overwhelmingly positive response to the mural: “I’ve truly enjoyed speaking with everyone, and getting your feedback. The one comment I’ve heard more than anything is that it makes you happy. … This was a dream come true for me.”

After working with the students to arrive at a vision for the mural, Beverly said, “they were drawn to surrealism and [the] abstract. … We talked about leaving a legacy – telling a story. They very much wanted the mural to be a destination that represents the community of Curt’s Cafe.

“The day came for the students to jump in painting, and they did it as a team. They asked questions. They went above expectations, and most of all, they had fun,” she added.

After the ribbon cutting for the mural, an impromptu Silly String component was added to the Aug. 13 program. Credit: Heidi Randhava

The artistic side of the project was managed by Dustin Harris and Leah Pinsky of Art Encounter’s Evanston Mural Arts Program. In his remarks, Harris said, “Our program has produced over 20 murals in every ward across Evanston … since 2017. … We’ve been working since 2019 to make this project happen. Thanks to the grant … and leadership of [Curt’s Cafe founder] Susan [Trieschmann], Tami, and Curt’s Cafe staff, we finally made it a reality in 2022.”

Aim & Ailie Hair Boutique also contributed to the mural project. The salon did a “pay-what-you-can pop-up haircut” fundraiser and donated the proceeds to the mural project, even before grant funds had been secured, Manton said.

At the unveiling, Manton introduced Mayor Daniel Biss to help with the ribbon cutting, saying the mayor “has been an amazing supporter of Curt’s Cafe for years,” adding that the cafe recently celebrated 10 years at the Central Street location.

Biss emphasized the importance of continuing the mission of Curt’s Cafe in the Evanston community. Noting that he observed “ladders and people painting” when he has arrived home after 10 p.m., Biss said, “The amount of love and effort, and passion that clearly went into this – and look at what we have as a community, as a result. … This changes the fabric of the day-to-day life in this community. We could not be more appreciative.”

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.

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