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Art Mon Dec 16 2013

Artistic Independence: New Mural Brings Irving Park Blue Line Stop to Life

By Derek Harmening

There's a steep, narrow stairway off the Blue Line at Irving Park that splits in two and spills out onto Pulaski Road. Commuters climb and descend this shadowed crawlspace, hurrying to their business as quickly as they can.

But these days, something stops them, catches them midstride, quietly and forcefully demands their attention.

M(ani)fest Mural, by Tony Sparrow
M(ani)fest Mural by Tony Sparrow. Photo by Derek Harmening

It's a phoenix in flight, breathtaking in scope, its wingspan captured in brilliant bursts of orange, brown, gold and red. This is the keystone of Tony Sparrow's M(ani)fest Mural — one of 10 panels transforming Independence Park into a living, breathing work of art.

As Chicago Artists Month set to work in Portage Park and its neighboring communities in October, neighborhood curator Cyd Smillie encouraged Sparrow to work on his mural in simultaneous celebration, and he gladly joined in.

"Purity" is the word Sparrow calls to mind when asked to define his newest project. Endorsed by John and Heather Aiken of the Greater Independence Park Neighborhood Association, M(ani)fest Mural is a response to the monotony of the traditional community mural.

"Look around," Sparrow says, "and you see so many walls with the same tropes: Chicago skyline, scenes from history, children holding hands. What you see less of is complete freedom of artistic expression." That's something the Aikens and GIPNA provided Sparrow, resulting in the markedly unique mural.

After lack of participation caused the Parkview Civic Association to disband back in the 1970s, GIPNA has inherited the challenge of fueling a dynamic and diverse community of artists — and they've done just that. Just to the west, the Old Irving Park Association has a well-established mural committee; GIPNA, in a positive response to their neighbors' example, is proving its own mettle by bolstering community involvement in the arts and giving expressive liberties back to the artists.

Accordingly, the awarding of the mural came with one stipulation: that it be purely artistic. It's clear Sparrow rose to the challenge.

M(ani)fest Mural panel 5
Photo courtesy of Tony Sparrow
The carte blanche resulted in 60 concept drawings and 15 fully detailed paintings, cubist hybrids of man and animal taking on different forms to different viewers. They didn't necessarily begin that way, but were the result of the constant, evolving exploration of shape and motion. Sparrow draws influences from Picasso in his use of sharp, clearly defined lines, Joan Miro in his stripping away to reach the simplicity of the subject, and the limbed monuments of Alexander Calder (such as Heads and Tail in Berlin).

Still, the mural's final form seeks to exceed the sum of its parts.

Most important, Sparrow stresses, is creating a work of art that draws people's attention. "Public art is unique — it's not like an exhibit, a gallery, where viewers can analyze and discuss the work for long periods of time," says Sparrow. "People don't get an explanation of public art. They have just a few moments, in passing, to decide, 'do I like this or not?' and so the art must cater to that quick impression."

It does. Spanning the entire southern viaduct wall along Pulaski, the ten panels, comprised of a twelve-color limit, attract and hold attention. Even as I stood at the site, dwarfed by the 30-foot long phoenix, taking in the surrounding panels and trying to extricate the arm of a man from the trunk of an elephant, the neck of a giraffe from a pronged fishtail, a commuter passed me and pointed to the wall.

"What's that one say?" he asked, for he had perceived the shapes as letters.

To Sparrow, that ambiguity is exactly the point. "If I see the head of a bird here, and my daughter sees a fish, who's to say which of us is right? A kid walking by pointed to this panel and said he liked the robot I was painting. Everyone sees something different. What's important is that everyone is stopping to look, to think, to feel."

If GIPNA really wants to breathe life into its arts committee, this is a promising start. Perhaps the phoenix below the Kennedy Expressway is as much a metaphor for all of Independence Park as it is for the beautification of yet another weatherworn Chicago viaduct.

Derek Harmening graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2011 with a degree in English, and then from the Denver Publishing Institute with a certificate in publishing. He currently works at the Book Cellar in Chicago. His work has appeared in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's undergraduate magazine Laurus and on the Chicago Artists Resource website.

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Sam / December 20, 2013 10:35 AM

This work is very vibrant and unique. The artist has done other public work in the city and he is really one to watch and start collecting.

Phyllis / December 20, 2013 3:39 PM

The artist also did the Hep Cat Mural on Cicero hard to pick which is better both are different yet the same.

Jill / December 20, 2013 4:01 PM

I met Tony Sparrow at one of his Art gallery showings super nice and very talented artist. My husband and I purchased two of his paintings and everyone comments on them when they see them in our house.

Hank / June 21, 2014 12:36 AM

This artist just did another awesome piece on Belmont.

All his work is very different yet you somehow know it is his work.

The new piece is massive I'm not sure how he does it but I do know he was out there hours on end usually working until the late evening.

Tom / June 1, 2015 10:49 PM

I noticed the artist came back out this year and added new borders and what appears to be a secret code or language to th bottom of the entire mural.

I did not think this work could get better but with these additions it has.

Gapers Block should do a follow-up story on the code

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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