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Local News

Art and Society: Social justice murals unveiled in Berwyn

BERWYN

A collection of colorful murals celebrating racial and cultural diversity in Berwyn, signifying hopes of a more just and equitable community, are being unveiled this month and in October.

The Berwyn Public Art Initiative on Sept. 16 dedicated two social justice mural sites completed by Youth Crossroads, Berwyn South School District 100 and J. Sterling Morton High School District 201 as a continuation of the 2020 Inclusion Project.

The murals, titled “Have Dreams” and “With Love and Justice There Is Community,” were unveiled at Youth Crossroads and at Stanley and Wisconsin avenues in Berwyn’s Depot District.

On Oct. 3, a Black Lives Matter mural will be presented in the Berwyn City Hall parking lot.

“We’re really looking at the transformation of Berwyn as a community over the last several years, which is pretty remarkable,” said Norman Alexandroff, president of the Berwyn Public Art Initiative and a Berwyn resident for nearly 20 years. “It was an idea that we started in January, not realizing that the world would be turned upside down. It’s the right place in the right time in the community. It’s a statement of the remarkable transformation of the community. That’s the message.”

The “Have Dreams” mural, which commemorates the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and celebrates diversity in Berwyn, features images of King, other Civil Rights icons and other significant figures.

It’s a collaboration between local artists Antonia Ruppert and Rob Moriarty, a Morton West fine arts teacher, as well as students from District 201. The second mural was created by District 100 middle school students under Ruppert and Moriarty’s direction.

“We wanted to provide students with an opportunity to talk about their hopes and dreams for building a more just and equitable society,” Alexandroff said. “It was designed to engage students in social justice practices.”

The process began at the end of 2019. It proved prescient, though, to think about creating social justice murals five months before George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis and Black Lives Matter protests sprang up across the country.

Moriarty and Ruppert provided students with a background on social justice murals. Through Youth Crossroads they went on a tour of social justice sites of significance throughout the Midwest, where they got the background they used to create the murals.

Students were introduced to the long history of community-based mural work, then began brainstorming and figuring out what to do. Drawing sessions and painting workshops were held, the theme of the murals was developed, and everything was approved through Youth Crossroads. They started building it, using bucket paint and spray paint, and then the COVID-19 pandemic happened and everything paused.

Because of the pandemic, there wasn’t quite the student participation they would have hoped for, but Moriarty said they probably had 25 to 30 students involved in some capacity.

“I hope they got an art experience, quite simply,” said Moriarty, a teacher at Morton West since 1998. “Hopefully some of the takeaways is they understand there is a long history of community-based art production in Chicago, and hopefully they feel they were a part of something and have a better understanding of how art gets made.”

Alexandroff, noting Berwyn’s progression to a more culturally diverse, culturally vibrant community, wants students to carry that work forward in their creative interests and passions.

“We want them to take the responsibility of building a more culturally vibrant community; we still have work to do,” Alexandroff said. “These are the future leaders of Berwyn. They are the ones that will make sure that all people, regardless of race or culture or country of origin, are going to be welcomed in Berwyn. Not too long ago, Berwyn wasn’t a welcoming community for people of different backgrounds. I think it really has changed remarkably.”

The next mural to be unveiled will communicate the actual language that Black lives matter in Berwyn. Alexandroff said a series of listening sessions took place to provide a space for residents to share their hopes and concerns about the mural.

There was initial pushback to the Black Lives Matter mural, with the mayor’s office saying the mural “was a political message and propaganda,” and that there apparently was an ordinance against political messages on city streets. That sparked a BLM rally, with the mural ultimately agreed upon Aug. 10.

The mural will go in the parking lot of city hall.

Each of the 16 letters were painted by a different artist.

“They will share their visions of a more just and equitable society,” Alexandroff said. “We anticipate that the mayor and police commissioner will all participate in a statement of unity and support for universal human rights.”

Now that the project is almost complete, what are Moriarty’s thoughts about making community-based art during a pandemic.

“We did a pretty good job, all things considered,” Moriarty said. “In terms of building community, community was built and students had fun.”

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