BERWYN – On a crisp August evening, Vanessa Garza stood up from a table and headed for the patio of Outta Space, a cozy corner dive bar in Berwyn disguised as a music and arts venue.
It’s almost 8 p.m., and the summer sun slowly faded into the dark, leaving behind streaks of light as its only trace. A small crowd of local officials and community members started to pile in, swapping small talk and taking swigs of craft beer and bites of complimentary catered food from a local joint, Tamales Hut Cafe.
Trading her plate for a paint brush, the 20-year-old Garza quickly looked at the sky and then back at the unfinished canvas in front of her. She wondered how fast she could work as she tried to salvage what was left of the natural light.
Garza grabbed the tube of bright red paint, coloring the tip of her brush, and carefully grazed the spots etched in pencil. At this point, a few leaves bordering the large white panel had been filled in and the centerpiece, a bungalow stacked with windows, was still incomplete.
Every now and then, a group of spectators huddled around Garza to talk about her piece, a tribute to her Berwyn neighborhood.
“I’m really into preservation,” said Garza, who was one of three featured creatives at a live art event hosted by the Berwyn Public Art Initiative on Aug. 27. The event doubled as a launch party for the nonprofit’s biggest project yet, an art installation that involves at least 15 artists, 30 murals and three sculptures.
Aptly named Art on Track, the display will be placed along the BNSF Railway in the historic Depot District, stretching from Harlem to Ridgeland avenues, as well as Windsor and Stanley streets.
In partnership with the city of Berwyn, BPAI received a total of $37,500 in grant funds and community-driven donations, including the Mainstreet Association of Realtors and Berwyn Development Corp. BPAI member Norman Alexandroff said the purpose of the showcase is twofold.
Part of it is practical and plays into his organization’s mission, Alexandroff said. Using art as the main attraction, BPAI works to beautify Berwyn’s commercial corridor.
“People tend to get off the train and they put their head down,” he said, adding the installation, in and of itself, is a way of getting commuters’ attention and spotlight some of Berwyn’s shops.
“The exhibition is really designed to bring people into the public square, to make them feel that they have a connection to the physical space and that they’ll feel more of a sense of pride and ownership in that neighborhood,” Alexandroff continued.
Beyond that, Art on Track is a nod to the residents of Berwyn. Like Garza, artists Benjamin Nelson and Hamza Muhammad, who goes by the pseudonym In-Zo, spoke freely about their love for the suburb, which rests just a few miles outside of the Chicago city limits.
Pointing to their murals, Nelson and Muhammad talked of the meaning behind their images, which also were inspired by Berwyn’s landscape and fleeting moments. A large rainbow-colored popsicle dominated Nelson’s panel, a staple of summer fun and simple memories shared with family. Muhammad’s pastel-colored background, however, is just one layer of his piece; he aims to include a signature character, one that embodies the “child in all of us.”
“We get so lost, so caught up in our daily lives, the responsibilities of our daily jobs,” said Muhammad, who formerly lived in Berwyn, about the importance of reclaiming that childlike spirit. With a smile, Muhammad recalled hopping on the Metra at the Berwyn station and riding off into an adventure, and to be a part of this particular project.
“It’s kind of like everything’s coming back full circle,” he said.
Personal experiences like Garza’s, Nelson’s and Muhammad’s make Art on Track special, and as a collection, the murals hold the power to unveil an even bigger message on unity, diversity and strength. Art has the ability to “really connect” neighbors and highlight the “cultural life of Berwyn,” Alexandroff said.
While this public art installation comes as an investment, it also serves as an introduction to an upcoming Dia de los Muertos art walk along the Depot District in October. That event, Alexandroff said, aims to highlight Berwyn’s growing Latinx community and artists, and embrace their culture and traditions. Though the art walk is still in the planning stages, BPAI already has put out a call for artists, performers, sponsors, curators and vendors who’d like to participate.
“We have this amazing artistic community that’s come into Berwyn,” Alexandroff said. “And we really have been able to activate them as agents for community building, agents for social change.”
“That’s really what artists do,” he added. “They come in and they bring a lot of creative energy, and they use those skills to transform this neighborhood.”
To learn more about the Berwyn Public Art Initiative, visit www.berwynpublicartinitiative.org. For those interested in contributing to BPAI’s Dia de los Muertos art walk, contact Norman Alexandroff at firstname.lastname@example.org.