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Sauganash Mural Pieces Together Community's Past and Future, Tile by Tile

  The mural, which will be dedicated at 2 p.m. Sept. 8, traces the history of the Sauganash area.
Tile by Tile, Sauganash Mural Pieces Together Community’s Past and Future
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SAUGANASH — Paula Fitzgerald was sure her dream of transforming the barren walls of a bicycle trail underpass in Sauganash into a mixed-media mosaic was slipping away this spring.

Time was running out to raise enough money for the mural at Peterson and Kostner avenues, which had been painstakingly designed by residents during several community meetings to represent the past, present and future of the Northwest Side community.

"The committee wanted to postpone the mural until next summer, and I just knew we had to keep the momentum going," said Fitzgerald, the president of the Sauganash Mural Project. "I didn't know if we were going to make it. I was feeling down, and my doorbell rang and it was my neighbors with a check for $500."

Fitzgerald, who has lived in Sauganash since 1970, said that turned the tide, and the group raised nearly $75,000 from residents and businesses, many of whom received a ceramic tile emblazoned with a cherished family photograph in return.

"All you have to do is ask in this community," Fitzgerald said. "People gave what they could or they showed up to work."

Nearly 100 volunteers have been working since the beginning of July to create the mural with artists from the Chicago Public Art Group. It will be dedicated at 4 p.m. Sept. 8. 

The mural features not only painted images but also photographs on ceramic tiles, clay figures and glass using a French art technique known as bricolage to craft a three-dimensional covering for the north and south walls of the underpass under what is now a bicycle and walking path but was once railroad tracks.

"We tried to blend the old with the new," Fitzgerald said, pointing out the historic photos now immortalized on the mosaic next to pictures of current residents' weddings, parties and homes. "It is amazing to think these photos will be here for the next 40 to 50 years."

Many of the tiles used to create the images are mirrored — some taken from residents' homes after a call for donations. As cars whiz past along Peterson Avenue, the rippling light gives the mural a sense of energy and life, Fitzgerald said.

The south wall, which is 85 feet wide and 48 feet tall, features a rendering of Queen of All Saints Basilica, one that had to be redone several times to get just right, Fitzgerald said. In addition, a series of photographs on ceramic tiles show the basilica's construction, which was completed in 1960.

The mural also pays homage to the nearby Sauganash Community Park along with depictions of the area’s historic homes, community garden and the annual 5K race with a glittering running figure.

The north wall, which is 68 feet wide and 48 feet tall, honors the early Native American settlers of the area, including Chief Sauganash. Other elements depict the area’s lush trees and vibrant wildlife, since Sauganash is nestled next to the forest preserve.

The centerpiece of the north wall is depiction of the stained-glass window in the sanctuary at Sauganash Community Church. Fitzgerald, who creates stained-glass pieces as a hobby, took the lead on completing the window.

"It is harder than it looks," Fitzgerald said. "I'm really happy with it."

Kathy Manrriquez, who helped depict the fire truck that always makes an appearance in the neighborhood’s Fourth of July parade on the north wall, said she loved working with the artists — even though the intricate work was daunting at first.

"It is like a gateway now," Manrriquez said.

Many of the passers-by — some of whom stop and park along Peterson Avenue to inspect the mural more closely — reach out and touch the mural, often tracing along the tiles and grout.

Carol Damlos, who stopped to check out the mural while walking her dog Harvey, said it was a good representation of what it means to be from Sauganash and to be part of the community.

Kathy Riordan, who helped organize the volunteer artists, said the creation of the mural has helped stitch together the community.

"People just wouldn't go home," Riordan said, with a smile. "It definitely represents what's important to them."