A retaining wall between the grass and the beach of Loyola Park is more than just 600 feet of concrete. Twenty seven years ago local artists took it over, founding The Artists of the Wall Festival and transforming the wall into a piece of collaborative public art.
About 130 different paintings — from minimalistic, color-block flowers to impossibly intricate patterns — on the wall represent the views of the community. A new theme each year — such as “Together We Art” in 2010 and “The Wall of Dreams” in 2011 — guides the artists’ designs.
Artists — who must register and pay for a spot on the wall months in advance — fill their designated five feet of space each Father’s Day weekend, culminating in about 130 separate spaces. The works remain up for the residents’ enjoyment for nearly a year. The following May, the wall is cleaned off and painted white, leaving a clean slate for the new year and new theme.
In recent years, violence has tainted the reputation of the park with shootings where two were left dead last October and one injured this May. It could be argued the positivity of the art is more important than ever. President of the Park Advisory Council, the committee that plans Loyola Park’s events, Jim Ginderske said the crimes had no bearing on whether or not the event would continue.
“As a community we try to embrace each other,” he said. “We’re certainly not going to let ourselves be defined by scattered occurrences, tragic though they may be.”
That community has continued to make Artists of the Wall happen. The festival is for and by Rogers Park residents — with planning from the Park Advisory Council and support from artists, lifelong Rogers Park residents and local business owners.
Past participants and supporters of the festival gathered at the Loyola Park Fieldhouse (1230 W. Greenleaf Ave.) — a 15 minute walk north of Loyola’s Lakeshore campus — Aug. 28 to discuss the event’s history. Old friends hugged and reminisced about their experiences painting the wall and the connections made through it.
Organizer Mary Bao became a coordinator of the festival with the Loyola Park Advisory Council soon after the event’s inception in 1993. She said she’s always had a passion for art. When she first participated in painting the wall, she let that fire supersede the rules.
“I actually was painting on the wall in a space that somebody else who was volunteering had gotten,” Bao said in an interview with The Phoenix. “The organizers saw this strange person painting and they painted over my art three times. I got so mad that I volunteered so that they wouldn’t do it again.”
Many in the fieldhouse referred to Bao as the glue that held the group together by thinking ahead and confirming the local businesses’ support necessary for getting all the paint and brushes.
She said selecting a different theme each year speaks to the voice of the people, recent events and needs of the times.
“We reflect what happens around us,” Bao said. “We’re like the speaker — the world goes through us and our images.”
The most recent theme, “Our Backyard,” emphasized the inclusivity of the event. For many, Rogers Park truly has been their backyard for much of their lives.
Born and raised in the area, Tina Juhlin has lived in the neighborhood for the last 57 years. Living so close to Loyola Beach, Juhlin said she’s delighted in watching the wall transform, but it’s become much more than a piece of public art for her and her family.
Juhlin’s daughter was the first in the family to get involved at 16 years old. She influenced the rest of the family of creatives to try their hand at painting a portion of the wall. The group has only grown as Juhlin’s daughter brings her own children to contribute.
“For the last 18 years, we have not missed one,” Juhlin said in an interview with The Phoenix.
This year, she shared her section of the wall with her family. All the spaces on the wall were taken the day registration opened so only some family members applied fast enough to get their own spot. Juhlin didn’t seem to mind — she painted individual Polaroid frames for her children and herself, making a scrapbook-style design.
Juhlin’s concept exemplified the problem-solving skills and cooperation necessary for the success of the festival. Coordinating an event for an entire neighborhood and gathering supplies doesn’t happen on it’s own. It takes the help of the community it seeks to benefit.
The owner of Clark-Devon Hardware, Ken Wolchak has been a longtime supporter of Artists of the Wall, providing paint and supplies for the artists. Having been in business for 100 years, Clark-Devon Hardware has supported numerous Rogers Park projects, so the addition of the event just made sense.
“Artists of the Wall is sort of a natural,” Wolchak said. “We’re a hardware store so we’ve got paint and that’s how we ended up with it and Mary [Bao] is a longtime customer.”
The Artists of the Wall functions not only as a beautiful addition to the area but also as the main fundraiser for the Loyola Park Advisory Council. The council of community volunteers plans events in Loyola Park. Money made from the wall supports events such as kids’ summer programs, the Daddy-Daughter Dinner Dance and movies in the park.
The impact of the Artists of the Wall can be seen throughout the year and painting it often gives people something to look forward to.
“The sky, the beach, the water, the sand, the people, the music,” Juhlin said. “It is just my favorite weekend of the year.”