Joyful Public Murals Brighten Downtown

Editor’s Note: Enjoy a longer version and additional photos in the Winter 2020 edition of Northwest Quarterly Magazine.

You may notice more color these days when exploring downtown Rockford. Here’s a rundown on eight new murals and the artists who created them during an event spearheaded by the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau this past summer.

Jenny Mathews
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 and Laura Gomel co-direct 317 Art Collective on Market Street.

Lisa and Libbie Frost
This mother-daughter team faced a challenging location – 42 pillars under Jefferson Street Bridge, at 299 N. Madison St.

“Don’t be afraid to do something big,” Libbie told her mom, Lisa, about the mural they titled “Rockford.”
“That became the greatest lesson in all this,” says Lisa. “The symbolism was to illustrate that we’re all a little different, but we come together as one.”

Brett Whitacre
This self-taught artist from Belvidere lives and works in Sycamore. He was originally invited by the local Audubon Society to produce a bird mural for Rockford to call attention to 389 North American bird species in danger of extinction. His mural is located on the south-facing wall of Rockford MakeSpace, 203 N. Church St.

Whitacre 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.”

Jenny Ustick and Atalie Gagnet
Ustick is a fine arts professor and Foundation Coordinator in the School of Art at the University of Cincinnati. She completed a mural artist residency program in Sicily and began collaborating with Gagnet in 2015.

The women wanted to create something special that reflected Rockford’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 in Texas. Find their mural on the west side of Chocolate by Daniel, 211 E. State St.

Molly Z
This Chicago-based artist began creatin large-scale murals about 10 years ago, when her work for Shedd Aquarium inspired her to see 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. “My main interest as an artist is in creating pleasure through visual complexity,” she says.

“High Hopes,” is on the west-facing wall of Lucette Holistic Salon and Boutique at 508 E. State St.

Chris Silva
Silva was born in Puerto Rico and has been a “naturalized Chicagoan” for years; he recently relocated to South Bend, Ind., but retains a Chicago studio. He began 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.

Silva likes site-specific challenges, so when the building owner for his mural, Rockford Orthopedic Appliance, 422 E. State St., wanted the ivy growing on the east-facing wall to be preserved, he incorporated it into his design.

“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.”

Yulia Avgostinovich
Avgostinovich was born in Belarus and studied art at Minsk, Belarus, and St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2012, she moved to Oakland, Calif., then to Lakeland, Colo., and now paints murals full time.

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 whooping crane and a peregrine falcon.

Corey Barksdale
An Atlanta native, Barksdale has been painting since he was a kid, when his mom kept him supplied with accounting paper to keep him busy in summer months. He began producing murals about nine years ago.

His untitled Rockford mural is on a south-facing wall in the parking lot across from the Capri Restaurant at 324 E. State St. Full of warm, bright tones on a black background, it was created freehand with spray paint and acrylics.

“It has a vintage feel to it, a throwback to art created during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s,” he says. “The colors are also important to me and represent a connection to my African-American heritage.”

It depicts the interactions of people and culture in an urban environment, with plenty of body movement, gestures and musical inspirations. ❚