Transcendence: A Community Mural in Aurora
By Charlie Zine
For years I rode my bike on the Fox River Trail, past an old, uncared-for building. It was an eyesore and it made me angry. I wanted to report the building to the city and have the owner clean it up since it is the single ugliest building on the bike trail in the entire area. Then I learned that it is not a factory any longer, it is the Hesed House Community Resource Center (CRC).
Hesed House is the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois. It is located in an old, donated city building located on River Street across the street from the CRC. The CRC is a building that houses various agencies committed to ending homelessness by providing services to the residents. These services include alcohol and drug counselling, employment counselling, family counseling, a bike repair clinic, and art classes for children living at Hesed House.
With state funding for social services being cut back, I knew Hesed House could not address the source of distress I experience on my rides. But if they could not do anything about the state of the building, then who could?
This led me to take on the task of beautifying the rear of the building that faces the Fox River Trail.
I started with a local artist I knew through Aurora’s thriving arts community, Martín Soto, who has already done several public art projects in New York City and elsewhere. Then I drafted Lynne Saidac, a social worker at Hesed House who runs an art class for resident youth.
We all met with Mike Cobb, the executive director at Hesed House, who gave us a tour and his blessing for the project. Cobb already met with a local young man looking to do a project to earn his Eagle Scout designation in Boy Scouts. The Scout painted the back of the building with white primer in preparation for our mural.
Lynne, Martín, and I came up with a great concept for the mural. All we needed was some money to get started. I then attended a Rotary Club of Aurora meeting and shared the story with my fellow Rotarians, who are regular supporters of Hesed House. Within minutes, Rotary offered to buy $500 worth of paint and materials for the project.
With the donated money, Martín and I went to Ace Hardware on Lake Street to buy paint. When I told the manager, Dan Amoni, at the checkout that Rotary was purchasing the paint and I showed him the tax exempt letter, he provided us with a generous discount.
We were off. We were on our way to beautifying the outside of a building on the Fox River and Fox River Trail, so that it complements the beautiful work already being done on its inside.
We fleshed out the theme, “Transcendence,” to recognize the goal of Hesed House: to help unfortunate people survive and get past their difficult times, i.e. to transcend them. The mural shows two human figures, the one on the left is “Despair,” and the one on the right, “Exaltation,” since Hesed House is part of the journey between the two for many residents.
Other elements of the mural are the Fox River and and the Fox River Trail, which many residents use to walk or bike their way around the community, but the same trail also hosts other users not suffering from poverty, mental illness, or life’s other adversities. Like me at one time, they often ride by the CRC without any knowledge of what it is, or what heroic efforts take place inside the formerly grimy walls.
Nature is also represented on the lower half of the mural because it is a vital part of our well being. The excellent trail system and river we are blessed with, gives us all access to to it. Many a time when I get overwhelmed or feel pressure, my relief is the get on my bike or in my kayak and pedal or paddle my way out of my funk. That to me is also a type of transcendence.
The Fox River and the green ribbon of nature that runs through it has helped to transform Aurora. Once it powered dams and factories, now it powers riverfront condos, bike trails, parks, concert venues, river walks, kayak beaches, and native plants. This too is a transcendence that many people have contributed to and strive for.
The top part of the mural is the sky and silhouettes of buildings of the various communities, that together, fund and man Hesed House. Although located in Aurora’s boundaries, Hesed House is supported by churches, service clubs, governments, citizen groups, individuals, businesses and corporations from all over Northern Illinois. Many communities support Hesed House.
On September 23, Martín created a Facebook invitation that welcomed the community to join in on helping to paint the mural at 680 S. River St. in Aurora.
After Martín created the Facebook event, I got a call from an old friend and colleague, Therese Oldenburg, the president of Be Active Outdoors. Therese and I both worked for Paddle and Trail, formerly the largest paddlesports dealer in Illinois. She was delighted to see us not only helping Hesed House, but also recognizing the value of outdoor recreation and of beautifying the Fox River Trail by improving an eyesore. So delighted that four days later, I opened a letter in the mail with a $3,000 contribution from Be Active Outdoors, for our Transcendence mural. With the donation, we will now have enough money to finish our current mural and have some left over to either start another mural on an adjacent wall, or add some native prairie plants to the land in front of the mural, or maybe even both.
For the last month, dozens of volunteers have assisted at the mural. Community members show up on planned work days to sketch, draw, tape, and paint. The mural is nearly complete, and set to be done by Halloween.
The mural itself is wonderful but the fact that this portion of the Fox River Trail was dark, overgrown, and looked like a post industrial wasteland, makes it even better. It is now open and bright and one of the more interesting segments of the trail. And with the new trail section opening up on River Street, bikers can now finally safely bike through downtown Aurora, to get to this section of the trail as well as to the Gillman Trail and to Oswego or Sugar Grove.