We first met Kip Conwell and Chloe Jensen back in January when the couple and their two small children attended a community meeting aimed at addressing growing gang violence in Albany Park. Two murders had taken place in the alley behind their house. “I’ve never heard so many gunshots,” Jensen told us at the time. “I feel quite helpless.”
On Monday afternoon, Conwell and Jensen were at the center of a far different community gathering: The unveiling of an anti-violence mural painted on their garage by youth from the Albany Park Neighborhood Council (3334 W. Lawrence Ave.) under the umbrella of MOSAIYC (Murals On Streets + Allies Inspired by Youth Creators). The purpose: to denounce violence while occupying youth in a meaningful activity.
“It was amazing to see such a positive thing,” says Jensen of the experience. “At first I was just excited to have an artistic mural. Then seeing the kids – wow, this is really great.”
APNC members – including students from Roosevelt, Amundsen and Von Steuben High Schools – spent three hours a day, three days a week for six weeks designing and painting the mural.
“Being with other students and painting is better than being on the computer,” says Kathy Bello, of Von Steuben, noting that she used to come home from school and pass away hours on the Internet.
Juan Martinez, a freshman at Roosevelt, gained skills and used his spare time more productively. “Now I have a positive and safe place to go after school.”
The mural came about when APNC approached Jensen and Conwell, partly because of their home’s proximity to violent activity but also because of their garage’s prominent corner location. “They knocked on our door and explained the project,” Jensen says. Her initial concerns that the artwork might have the opposite effect and draw increased gang attention quickly faded. In addition to reassurances that APNC would maintain the mural in the event of tagging or other vandalism, Jensen and Conwell were eager to present a message of peace and beauty to their neighbors. “I think it’s important to speak your mind,” Jensen says.
As the host homeowners, Conwell and Jensen provided APNC with general ideas to incorporate into the mural, including peace and the environment. (Conwell maintains a sizable garden and grows tomato plants along the sidewalk for passersby to pick as they go.) “They ran with it,” she says.
James Montiel and Kimberly Cruz, both seniors at Roosevelt, led the team of teens, with guidance from James’ brother Eduardo, a recent graduate of the American Academy of Art. “They’re the ones that came up with the sketches,” says Eduardo. The vibrant palette – bright greens, yellows and oranges – was specifically chosen for its exuberance and the absence of dark colors associated with gangs.
A long-time resident of Albany Park, Eduardo has witnessed dramatic changes in the neighborhood. “Kids are stuck in their houses,” he says, fearful of the violence outside their doors.
“The power of art, it’s something visual, it sticks in your mind.” More than just a beautiful image, the mural encourages youth to feel empowered, he says. “It’s about not having them be so depressed or scared.”
Work has already begun on two additional murals at selected locations where violence has occurred. “We would love to expand to large apartment buildings struck by gang graffiti,” says Radhika Sharma Gordon, coordinator of Albany Park Safety Networks for the Albany Park Community Center. Safety Networks secured grant funding (which runs out June 30) for the mural through an Illinois violence prevention initiative.
“You can’t expect politicians, parents and police to do it all. Police would rather see youth positively engaged,” she says.
While using paint brushes to combat guns may seem like a lopsided fight, Gordon notes, “Art is such an under-counted contribution. It provides creative expression, an outlet for emotion, it brings people together. It makes people stop and think.”