ENGLEWOOD — A brightly painted 30-foot-long mural captures the face and hands of an Englewood woman considered a neighborhood treasure who has been a longtime youth volunteer and whose garden has brightened a blighted area.
Gwen Johnson, 79, is the “keeper of dreams” and she’s stretching to connect the children with possibilities, said the mural’s designer and lead artist Cyd Smillie.
“What I’m really trying to do is keep hope alive,” Johnson said. “I love Englewood and I’ve been here for so long. My hope and dream is that Englewood will come back.”
The mural was installed on the side of 63rd Street Food & Liquor, between Honore and Wood streets. The "What We Create" project is sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. It was designed as a follow-up to this year’s women’s march, Smillie said.
This Englewood mural was designed by lead artist Cyd Smillie. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]
Johnson's image is blended in with three others.
The fire, water, earth and air address the idea of creation, dreams and goals. The mathematical equations are to remind the viewer that African-American women had a significant role in helping the nation travel to outerspace, as depicted in the hit movie, "Hidden Figures." And the last image is a recreation of a photo of activist and artist Elizabeth Catlett contemplating what has been created.
The concept for the mural was to show what women have done historically, as well as what they are doing today. Smillie worked closely with women and girls of the non-profit group I Grow Chicago. A dozen young girls helped her paint.
Johnson has owned her house on 63rd and Wood for 50 years and lives down the street from I Grow Chicago’s Peace House, which offers free programming including yoga, meditation, mentoring, gardening and social services. She has volunteered her time since it opened.
Johnson’s the kind of neighbor who everyone knows and respects, the muralist said.
Her neighborhood consists of too many empty lots and vacant houses, she says, but she tries to bring some beauty to her block with her flowers and rose garden.
Gwen Johnson plants flowers on her block to brighten up the neighborhood. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]
Johnson didn’t know Smillie had plans to use her as inspiration, but when she saw the mural, “It was a very proud moment for me to know that they really care that much for me,” she said.
She hopes that it sends the message to the community’s girls that their future is bright and they can make a difference.
Her neighbor Marie Woods said the mural is a nice addition to the neighborhood.
“I think it’s beautiful,” she said.
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) said this is the third major mural project in the ward within the last two years.
“Community projects like this allow us to tell our story, our narrative,” he said. “I’m glad to work with I Grow Chicago and other organizations to create more neighborhood expressions in West Englewood.”
He called Johnson a neighborhood treasure, saying that she’s been instrumental in trying to improve the community.
A resolution honoring the artists, participants and community partners will be introduced at the next City Council meeting.
Smillie was the designer and lead artist, but worked with a group of contributing artists.