Downtown Rockford has a new splash of color and beauty. Learn what inspired the nine public murals found throughout the Forest City’s urban campus, and meet all of the talented artists who created them.
You may notice more color these days when exploring downtown Rockford. That’s because the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (RACVB) brought a “community-building, art-infused” event to downtown last year. Titled “CRE8IV (pronounced “creative”): Transformational Art,” eight lead artists and their teams created nine large-scale murals over a period of 15 days, leaving a legacy of color and beauty on otherwise drab city walls.
A five-day festival in May 2019 celebrated the activities by hosting “block pARTies” at five mural locations with food, entertainment and opportunities to meet the artists and witness the creative process in action. Although not the first murals produced in the Forest City, these were the first ones created by multiple artists over the same period.
Patterned after similar mural festivals in other cities, the endeavor was made possible by a $91,800 matching grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce, Office of Tourism.
“We develop destination-defining experiences to encourage tourism, as well as enhancement through beautification and the arts,” says Tana Vettori, director of destination development at RAVCB. “We’re not just focused on visitors, but also on enhancements for our residents.”
The festival was inspired by the city’s first commissioned mural by Denver artist Kelsey Montague in 2018, titled “What Lifts You,” on the corner of East State and First Avenue, and another by Boylan High School senior Libbie Frost on the east end of State Street bridge.
“Our original plan called for 14 murals, one in each of the 14 wards of the city,” says Kristen Paul, destination development operations manager. “But the grant required a central location to draw more visitors, so we settled on eight murals in 15 days – 815! When one artist finished early, we sneaked in a ninth.”
The destination development team did extensive research to select which artists to invite and visited several cities to view their work, but the timing was limited.
“The grant application was submitted in January, approved in April, and the festival was held in May,” says Paul. “We wanted to include local, regional and international artists. Since we wanted them all here at the same time, the final selection came down to artists’ availability and project funding.”
To expedite the process, the team avoided selecting sites which might include historic locations that could delay approval. They partnered with the building owners whose walls would be painted, and everyone who was asked agreed enthusiastically.
“One of the biggest partners of the project was the local Painters Union,” says Paul. “With our first commissioned project, they saw us on a lift, trying to prime one of the walls ourselves, and came to our rescue. Their members prepped and primed the original sites for us.”
Although murals have been used in other communities to promote controversial issues or political agendas, the Rockford team chose to avoid such potential conflicts.
“We wanted it to be a joyful experience for everyone,” says Paul. “The murals might not be everyone’s style, but none are intended to cause anger or resentment. Our No.1 criterion was that, when you looked at the art work, it made you happy and inspired.”
The artists who participated and the team that brought them here all agreed that the experience and the outcome was a positive one.
“People gathered at the sites, rode bikes from one to the other, commented positively on the color, diversity, scale and central location,” says Paul. “It’s amazing what a can of paint can do!”
One of three local artists who participated in Rockford’s mural festival, Mathews’ artwork is on the alley wall of Wired Café, 416 E. State St., and depicts a huge dandelion scattering its seeds down the alley.
“Dandelions are very Midwestern and are free for everyone,” says Mathews. “It was inspired by one of the neatest compliments I ever received. Somebody observing my work once said, ‘If I had three wishes, I’d give you one.’ The dandelions are my gift – my wish – to the city.”
Mathews is co-director, along with Laura Gomel, of the 317 Art Collective on Market Street, where 10 artists have their studios. Her business, Rockford Illustrating, takes its name from the original occupant of the building. She specializes in tiny watercolors of cityscapes and big acrylic murals, which can be seen throughout the city.
Mathews assisted another local artist, Therese Rowinski, to produce a mural in the alley next to their Market Street studio in the summer of 2018. Mathews grew up near downtown Rockford and remembers riding her bike down State Street on her way to the library.
“It was a scary place then for me to travel alone,” she recalls. “To see [the neighborhood] take this positive turn, and for me to paint a wall to be part of it – things have come full-circle for me.”
Lisa and Libbie Frost
The Frosts are the only mother-daughter team who participated in the festival and their location was challenging – the pillars under the east end of Jefferson Street Bridge, at 299 N. Madison St.
Lisa had a long career in the gift industry, at one point producing an artistic license for an international company with 250 stores worldwide. She eventually returned to her roots as an art teacher for the CAPA program in Auburn High School. Her studio is located above The Norwegian restaurant on North Main Street.
While a senior at Boylan last year, her daughter, Libbie, designed and produced a public mural project of her own.
“She got the idea to do something positive for her hometown when we were visiting colleges in North Carolina,” recalls Lisa. “She wrote a proposal, obtained permission from the city, sketched a design and did a GoFundMe page to raise money for supplies – all on her own.”
The mural, titled “Rockford,” is located on the northeast end of State Street Bridge, facing the Joe Marino memorial park, and was completed in two weeks.
The Jefferson Street Bridge pillars provided some unique challenges for mother and daughter. The location is bisected by a busy street and a railroad spur. There are 42 pillars, ranging from two to four stories high, and four sides provide 250 square feet of area – a total of 10,500 for the entire mural.
“Libbie said, ‘Don’t be afraid to do something big,’” recalls her mom. “That became the greatest lesson in all this.”
The team made scale models of the pillars in Lisa’s basement, eventually settling on a design of bold shapes and colors, with a map to aid in transferring the design to the pillars on location.
“The symbolism was to illustrate that we’re all a little different, but we come together as one,” says Lisa. “Libbie and I are a good team and we work well together. She has a good eye and I always trust her judgment.”
Libbie is now a freshman at Notre Dame and is working on a mural project for a school bus in South Bend, Ind., while studying for a degree in business and design.
Like mother, like daughter!
Brett Whitacre is a self-taught artist from Belvidere who lives and works in Sycamore.
Before his art career took off, he was a drummer in a psycho-Billy band from Nashville, called the Legendary Shack-Shakers. He went on a world tour with them, but left the band in 2016.
Whitacre was originally invited by the local Audubon Society to produce a bird mural for Rockford. Its purpose was to call attention to a list, recently released by the National Audubon society, of 389 species in North America in danger of extinction.
“When we heard about the mural festival, we decided to complete the project the same week and join in the festivities,” says Whitacre.
He chose to paint a Baltimore Oriole because of its bright orange coloring.
“I’m a color-blind artist,” admits Whitacre. “Reds and greens are hard for me to distinguish, but orange is easy for me. The turquoise background really helps it pop.”
The mural is on the south-facing wall of Rockford MakeSpace, 203 N. Church St., overlooking a parking lot. He used a 20-year-old overhead projector placed on his van to throw the image of a color transparency onto the wall, while tracing it in chalk from a scissor-lift provided by the festival.
Jenny Ustick and Atalie Gagnet
Jenny Ustick is Assistant Professor of Practice in Fine Arts and Foundation Coordinator in the School of Art at the University of Cincinnati. She met fellow artist Gagnet in 2015, and they began collaborating on projects, including a mural artist residency program in Sicily, to which Ustick was invited in 2018.
“I asked Atalie to co-manage and design the Rockford mural with me,” says Ustick. “We work well together, have a versatile aesthetic, and a wide range of skills.”
As guests of the city, the women decided they wanted to create something special for Rockford that reflected the city’s history and people.
“Our focus has been to highlight the incredible accomplishments of some really bad-ass women,” says Ustick. Their research led them to a World War II-era photograph of Libby Gardner, a Rockford native who served in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in Texas [see sidebar]. The wall they were given is the west side of Chocolate by Daniel, 211 E. State St. It faces the parking lot near the NewsTower, visible to any one traveling east from the State Street Bridge.
“Murals are intended to spark public reaction and conversation and we had many opportunities,” says Ustick. “Several people said how honored they were to have a part of their history displayed. It’s also not lost on us how important an event like CRE8IV can be for downtown Rockford.”
In a newspaper interview during the festival, Gagnet also emphasized the importance of showing Rockford’s little girls that public art is not just something boys or men do.
“We were up on the lifts with our headlamps on, working one night,” recalls Ustick. “People on the street could see us working up there. Some young guys walked by and stopped to watch the activity. One of them whispered, ‘Hey, the dude is up there!’ And I said, ‘Not a dude – I’m a chick. But thanks!’”
Background on Libby Gardner
Libby Gardner grew up in Rockford and joined the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in 1943 during World War II. At age 22, she was photographed in the cockpit of a B-26 Marauder medium bomber in Harlingen, Texas. The photo probably appeared in a news magazine of the day.
The WASPs were trained to fly all types of military aircraft and served as ferry pilots or towed targets for live fire practice for airplanes and anti-aircraft guns. The unit was disbanded in 1944 and the women were sent home without ceremony.
Gardner went on to an aviation career as a test pilot for Piper Aircraft in New York. In 1946, while testing a parachute device to land disabled planes, she was nearly killed when the device failed to open; she had to exit the falling plane at 500 feet. Gardner died in 2011, at age 91.
The WASPs finally achieved veteran status in 1977, making them eligible for federal benefits 33 years after their service. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal.
Molly Z is a Chicago-based artist who’s worked for many years as a fine-detail digital illustrator. She started creating large-scale murals about 10 years ago, when her work for Shedd Aquarium inspired her to consider the results as transformational spaces: public art that can educate and stimulate people’s creativity.
“I often use biomorphic abstractions in my work – shapes and patterns that are related to nature,” says Molly. “I think that creates a really joyful place for people.”
Molly’s Rockford mural, “High Hopes,” is on the west-facing wall of Lucette Holistic Salon and Boutique at 508 E. State St.
Before beginning a mural project, she meets with the building owner and other locals involved in the festival to learn what they’re hoping to have on their building.
“Murals last for a long time,” she notes. “So I visit the site, see where it’s located and who is going to view it, before creating the design.”
She was aware that the artists were invited to Rockford to help transform the landscape and create a new optimistic outlook in the city.
“My main interest as an artist is in creating pleasure through visual complexity,” says Molly Z. “My hope is to share a brief moment of awe and joy with those who experience the work, causing them to smile.
“The festival was a great opportunity to interact with other muralists, to compare techniques and approaches to design. It was also a way to remind us that we are part of something beyond our individual projects. We loved Rockford! It was one of the best-run public festivals I’ve ever been a part of.”
Chris Silva was born in Puerto Rico and has been a “naturalized Chicagoan” for years. He recently relocated his family to South Bend, Ind., but still retains a studio in the Windy City.
Silva got into street art by starting as a graffiti artist when he was 14. His work on a mural with the Chicago Public Art Group convinced him to try large-scale projects, especially ones involving urban youth collaboration.
Silva was also a skateboard enthusiast and visited Rockford several times in the late ’80s to skate at Rotation Station, a now defunct facility that was mentioned in the recent award-winning documentary, “Minding the Gap.”
Silva likes site-specific challenges, so when he heard the building owner (Rockford Orthopedic Appliance, 422 E. State St.) was concerned that ivy growing on the east-facing wall be preserved, he was excited to incorporate the plants into his design.
“I had a picture of the wall and used PhotoShop to create the design,” says Silva. “I just started playing around, figuring out how to isolate the areas of greenery. Eventually, it became as simple as using circles to contain them.”
His design, and its title, “Round Trips (Widening Circles),” was inspired by a poem by Rainer Marie Rilke, and by a quote from Albert Einstein, admonishing us to “widen our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Because the wall needed to retain some unpainted areas of brick and plants, Silva prepped and primed it himself.
“This was my first experience creating that large a mural on my own,” says Silva. “I enjoyed the process, the festival, and getting to know Rockford. It was also a reaffirmation of how important public art is. Sometimes I forget that. It gave me an extra boost, reinvigorating my drive to continue.”
Yulia Avgostinovich was born in Belarus and studied art in Minsk, Belarus, and St. Petersburg, Russia. She completed her first outdoor mural in 2009.
In 2012, she moved to Oakland, Calif., and then to Lakeland, Colo., near Denver, four years ago. She now paints murals full time.
“After accomplishing my first public art projects and wall murals, the feeling of fulfillment and the amazing feedback I received from the public confirmed for me that I was on the right path,” says Avgostinovich.
Her designs often include native birds, plants and flowers, especially endangered species, and her Rockford mural is no exception. Located on the west side of Symbol Clothing at 316 W. State St., the mural includes Illinois’ state bird, the cardinal, a sandhill crane and a peregrine falcon like the ones that returned to nest at the NewsTower last spring.
Avgostinovich uses a grid system instead of a projector to enlarge her designs onto the wall, and paints much of it freehand. She started working on her mural before the festival began and finished earlier than expected.
“I was invited to paint the concrete structure down by the river [in Davis Park] as well,” she says. “I wanted to use bright, festive colors in my design. The festival was a very pleasant experience, well-organized, and I had a great time. I also got to see part of northern Illinois for the first time.”
Corey Barksdale is from Atlanta and has been drawing and painting since he was a kid, when his mom kept him supplied with accounting paper to keep him busy during the summer months.
“Drawing was a great outlet for me,” he remembers.
Barksdale began to produce murals about nine years ago, after originally concentrating on canvas art and gallery shows. Businesses and schools began requesting his work as well.
His untitled Rockford mural is on a south-facing wall at 324 E. State St., in the parking lot across from Capri Restaurant. Full of bright colors and warm tones against a black background, the mural was created freehand with spray paint and acrylics, working from his original design.
“I don’t use a projector,” says Barksdale. “I don’t want my work that tight or contrived. I want people to see the gestures of my strokes and the movement in my artwork. The design is based on a painting I created in the past. It has a vintage feel to it, a throwback to art created during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. The colors are also important to me and represent a connection to my African-American heritage.”
The figures, he says, depict the interactions of people and culture in an urban environment, with plenty of body movement, gestures and musical inspirations.
Barksdale met a lot of people while creating his mural who showed him “southern hospitality for a southerner in a northern city.”
“I was really impressed with the different techniques and styles [of the other artists]. I had a great experience and hope to participate again in the future.”