Foster underpass gets an artsy facelift

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Rogers Park resident Aimee Bass shows friends her ceramic tile on the "Indian Land Dancing" mural at the Foster Avenue underpass. | Credit: Natasha Wasinski

A skateboarder glides down the shimmering black mane of woman who hugs a sphere of seven circles.  The underside of his board says “Apache.”  Woven into the woman’s hair, a poem reads, “With our strong arms, we form a circle, and in that circle, we embrace the world.”  

The hundreds of ceramic and mirror tiles, paintings and photographs that create these images and more are part of the new “Indian Land Dancing” mural on the north and south side walls of the Foster Avenue underpass at Lake Shore Drive.

Spearheaded by Ald. Mary Ann Smith (D-48) and the Chicago Public Art Group (CPAG), the 3,200-square-foot bricolage is the largest direct-application mosaic in Chicago and the only public art piece designed by Native Americans.

Smith and Mayor Richard M. Daley hosted a dedication ceremony of “Indian Land Dancing” and a powwow on Saturday.

Local artists and 33 youth from Alternatives, Inc., a child and family agency in Chicago, came together for six weeks this summer to prepare the surfacing, cut and apply tile, sculpt clay and paint the concrete walls.  

Project designers Tracy VanDuinen, Todd Osborne and Cynthia Weiss reached out to Native American artists, scholars and families last October to ask for direction and preliminary designs for the project. Involving the Native American community was integral to the project's success, VanDuinen says.

“We didn’t want to make it Indian-ish,” says VanDuinen, who works as a school art instructor in Little Village.  Rather, the artists sought to portray Native Americans “as a culture now met with their past.”

The result is a colorful display that interweaves time and heritage, with both distinct tribal nuances and larger Native American symbology providing the bulk of the imagery.

 “[The mural] is not stereotypical of Native American images, such as headdresses and tee pees,” says CPAG Development Director Maria Gray. “What came out is very meaningful.”

For example, the matriarchal figure holding the sphere of circles represents responsibility to future generations, VanDuinen says. It is a common Native American belief that all generations are connected and so “you are responsible for generations ahead of you and should respect them,” he says.

Historian and photographer Frances Hagemann contributed the poem “We Are The Mothers” and several photographs to the project. Hagemann, a resident of Oak Lawn, is of Ojibwe/Métis descent and her grandparents hail from a tribe in Ontario.

Hagemann says she has spent a lot of time researching Native American images in public artwork across the country.  “Invariably, [most of] this work is done by non-Native American artists and is very stereotypical,” she says.  “It gives people their impressions of Native Americans.”

The Foster underpass project is different, she says. From the very beginning, the designers and artists wanted to make sure the mural portrayed history from a Native American perspective, says Hagemann.

Local residents were also invited to participate in the mural’s creation. Aimee Bass of Rogers Park contributed a ceramic tile that she painted a dandelion on as a way to promote environmentalism.

“My message is not to put weed killers and toxic chemicals into our environment,” Bass says. “We don’t need to vilify dandelions,” she says, adding that she grows dandelions and use them in food recipes.  

Some community members donated money to the project, but $107,770 of its funding came from Smith’s office. CPAG has collaborated with Smith for the past three years to create public art projects to beautify the 48th Ward and involve its community members. The underpasses at Bryn Mawr and Lawrence avenues also feature bricolage art walls.

“People go out of their way to come see these,” VanDuinen says of the bricolage murals.

Not only does public artwork look good but it makes urban areas feel safer.  

“It used to be more of a scary walk to the beach,” Bass says. “Now it’s a joy.”

 

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NATASHA WASINSKI, 08-21-2009

Please note that the dedication ceremony is Saturday, August 22.