A new project in Bloomington combines art, disadvantaged youth, and downtown redevelopment. WGLT's Charlie Schlenker has more on a mural by and about young people that will be dedicated this weekend.
Artist Joel Bergner is on the south end of Downtown Bloomington, in a pair of jeans so covered in various shades of paint splatters, you can only guess at the original fabric color. He's standing next to a partly painted mural on the side of a four story building talking with more than a dozen teens, students at the Regional Alternative High School for Bloomington Normal. "And the theme of this mural is second chances. The kids actually came up with the theme and all of the imagery through a series of workshops."
On the wall is a Phoenix rising, the firebird, symbol of rebirth. There is a person looking down in sorrow or anger and another gazing upward in hope. 16 year old Jon Strange says he hopes those who drive or walk by understand the work. "You know I've got, I've got a second change in life like I messed up in school and now I'm going to alternative. So I look at that as my second chance. I think it's pretty cool that we can put the image of second chances and let everybody see it through a painting. I hope people can look at it and actually get the meaning out of it that they are supposed to, know what I'm sayin?"
Artist Joel Bergner is giving the kids instructions before he turns them loose to help finish the mural. Bergner is a Bloomington-Normal native who has done public art all over the world... in a refugee camp on the border between Syria and Lebanon, in a Nairobi slum in Kenya, in Brazil, Poland, Mexico, and in many U.S. Cities. In each place, he says, the children who help, get a taste of empowerment. Bergner says they can see themselves as agents of change. "Hopefully the idea is they grow up to have that sense, Oh I can do something to better where I am from. And so whether that's in art...many of them are not necessarily going to be artists. That's ok. They might do many other things and be leaders in many other fields."
Some of the students grabbing paintbrushes and rollers like the project because it has many meanings to it, and not just personal ones. Raeisha Russell is 17 years old. She says the lesson is for everyone. "I think it's good for our community because we have a lot of stuff going on. We have a lot of violence going around er drug abuse or teen pregnancy a lot of stuff. So if you mess up, it doesn't mean give up. Everybody needs a second chance to redeem theirself."
The young people are also being encouraged to come up with their own motivational statements to inscribe in the painting, whether that is an image, or poetry, or just a saying. "I want to put on their sometimes you may fall and it might hurt, but it's up to you to get up and try it again."
Joel Bergner says that kind of response is an example of how important art and the arts are to young people. "I've noticed that kids, especially kids that are having a really hard time in life for a variety of reasons. Those kids just love to get into dance and they love to get into painting and they love to get into music, and when they have those kinds of things to focus on, it can really benefit their entire lives."
Funding for the $9,000 mural comes from the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation and the Jerome Mirza Foundation. Tricia Stiller, the Director of the Downtown Bloomington Association says the location on the south end of the downtown helps define the border of the district as a different mural does on the north end. Stiller says the colorful wall draws attention to the identity of downtown Bloomington as an arts colony. But, she says it's also an important educational act. "The staff at the Regional Alternative School are providing for the first time an experience in art education. This is not a part of their regular curriculum. So this allows these students to have a brand new experience and get some connection to the community."
The workshops Bergner gave before the design process went through the entire history of such art, everything from cave paintings to DaVinci frescos to street art, and the murals of Diego Rivera. That material spoke to 16 year old Jon Strange. "like the different types of ways that you can make a big ol mural. Know what I'm sayin? Like there's this one that you use itty bitty pieces and you just like glue em on and when you get done like all the pieces make one big picture. I like that one a lot. "
"They definitely gravitate toward certain images," Bergner says. He says kids prefer bold color and strong imagery. "They like intensity. They like, for example, some of the Mexican murals that discuss issues of the Mexican Revolution and different wars that happen. So they like that type of stuff. And then they really gravitate toward some of the current street art and graffiti styles that are out there."
Bergner drags a set of scaffolding closer to the building so some of the students can paint higher up. Though "Second Chances" matter for these students at the Regional Alternative School, for some like 16-year old Cece Riles, it's not the symbolism that matters, it's the act of creation itself. "I mean it's like something you can ride past and you like we workin on that we havin fun doin it, and something you can say you did, beautiful."
Support Your Public Radio Station