By Jessica Mozo
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Illinois is like an open book just waiting to be read. Larger-than-life murals enhance structures and buildings in cities across the state, telling the unique stories of each community’s people and heritage.
“The murals and statuary in towns and cities are an integral part of their history – past and present – and what these places represent,” says Dianna Mueller, a mural artist in Chester. “They demonstrate a town’s pride and ambience and afford so many opportunities for photographs.”
Chester (population 7,800) is among scores of Illinois towns whose history is literally painted all over it. More than a dozen murals liven up the town’s businesses, schools, residences and churches, many incorporating characters from the well-loved comic and cartoon star Popeye the Sailor. Popeye’s creator, Elzie Crisler Segar, was born in Chester in 1894.
Mueller and her husband, Ted, painted or worked on many of Chester’s murals, including ones at Gazebo Park, the Chester Opera House, the Spinach Can Collectibles Museum, Rough House Pizza, Chester City Hall and the Chester Welcome Center.
“City Hall boasts the Popeye characters representing various city employees – Popeye is a fireman, Olive Oyl is a city clerk, Wimpy is the town mayor and Brutus is a policeman,” Mueller says. “Those murals were created on canvas and attached to the walls with wallpaper paste so they can be moved and repositioned when the walls need repainting.”
In Peoria, visitors can see murals depicting the “History of the Mardis Gras” and the Illinois Traction Railway, among others. Much of Peoria’s public art is along the downtown riverfront, although there also are indoor murals in Peoria’s City Hall, the luxurious Hotel Père Marquette and the library at Bradley University.
“Each mural has its own character and theme,” says Jonathan Wright, managing editor of Central Illinois Business Publishers Inc. “Most of the murals have themes pertaining to the business inside – jazz musicians at the Madison Theatre, runners at the Running Central shoe store, and fair trade and international cooperation at Global Village, a fair trade shop. The indoor murals at City Hall and the Père are quite old and represent Peoria’s rich history.”
Another mural on the outside of Water Street Wines, Café & Coffees features several prominent Peorians hidden in the collage – an inside joke that invokes a chuckle with the locals.
“It’s difficult to put a dollar amount on the value of art, but it is undeniable that public art enhances the quality of life in the area and shows a connection to culture that is attractive to young professionals, tourists and other visitors,” Wright says.
Ottawa, a city of about 19,000 residents, started a mural project in 2002 to beautify downtown Ottawa and create a cultural attraction for tourists and residents. The project, called “A Brush With History,” has overseen the paintings of murals focusing on local industry, prominent citizens and major internal improvements such as the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal that runs through Ottawa.
Murals also are part of Naperville’s Century Walk, a collection of 35 pieces of public art that also includes mosaics and sculptures. The murals and other art reflect more than 100 years of Naperville’s history. An alley off Washington Street, for example, brings back memories for long-time Naperville residents of dime stores and transistor radios in the mural called “The Way We Were.”
Other Illinois Mural Cities
Illinois murals add zest to more than a dozen other cities, including Joliet, Lincoln, Sterling, Charleston, Metropolis, Atlanta, Sullivan and Rockford. The Illinois Lincoln Highway, a National Scenic Byway, is also producing a series of interpretive murals along its corridor in Northern Illinois.
Back in Chester, Mueller says she loves being a mural artist for the satisfaction it brings when others enjoy her color-splashed walls.
“I love large canvasses – or walls – and get so excited to see all that blank space I get to paint,” she says. “I guess painting murals also means I become a part of the town history, which is pretty special. I am leaving something behind, whether in the mural or in photos taken of the mural before it has faded or been replaced.”