Why Oak Park artist Tia Etu included herself in multistory mural featuring Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, da Vinci
Completed in 2015, ‘The Artist Window’ mural stands at the gateway to the suburb’s Arts District.
At the gateway to Oak Park’s Arts District are big images of some bigtime artists including Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol and Leonardo da Vinci.
They’re part of a mural, divided into four parts, that adorns the tan, exterior brick wall of an apartment building, looking almost like so many colorful window panes.
Part of a series on public art in the city and suburbs. More murals are added every week.
Kahlo, a Mexican painter who died in 1954, stares longingly from one frame.
Warhol is seen with arms crossed in one image, wearing glasses in another.
Da Vinci, the Renaissance artist best known for the “Mona Lisa,” appears stoic in hat and white beard.
And, to his right, there’s a woman facing a wall in a room.
That’s Tia Etu, the Oak Park artist who painted the mural and has lived in the Arts District for decades. Centered on Harrison Street just west of Austin Boulevard near the West Side, the district was created to foster the arts in the near west suburb. There’s a concentration of public art, including sculptures, and artists and art-related businesses are encouraged there.
“I included myself, or at least the back of my head,” Etu, 59, says of the mural titled “The Artist Window,” which she painted in 2015. “I did this to state that I am in a room with my equals, bringing my future into existence.”
She wanted to make a statement as people entered the Arts District, which also is anchored by a mural across the street, on the side of an Oak Park police substation, by 67-year-old Oak Park artist Jonathan Franklin. That mural includes Native American-inspired imagery of painted horses and masked riders. Called “Rush Hour,” it aims to capture the frustration that comes with trying to get from one place to another.
Etu says her mural is one of her more commercial pieces: She was paid to create it, so she says she had less control than in some of her other works. She thinks some of her other murals in Oak Park give a better sense of her as an artist and as a person.
Among them: “In Her Father’s Shoes,” which is among dozens of murals that span a rail viaduct on South Boulevard near Oak Park Avenue.
The backdrop of that mural, painted in 2017, is a green sky. And there are buildings meant to represent an “average” neighborhood in Chicago, according to Etu. A girl sports a yellow dress with dark polka dots as she treks through the big city in shoes too big for her.
“She is that little girl that doesn’t know her father,” the artist says, describing this as something of a self portrait. “She’s stepping into his shoes because he’s not there.”
Etu found her love for art in middle school, growing up on the South Side in Chatham. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago and moved to Oak Park in 1984 with her toddler son.
“She is a jewel in this community,” says Camille Wilson White, executive director of the Oak Park Area Arts Council, “a very, very talented artist who works in so many different mediums and disciplines” — painting, sculpting, making puppets and jewelry.