Aside from a single class in college, Jenny Vyas had never painted before. And she never wanted to be an artist.
Until, at 38, her engagement “fell apart overnight,” and suddenly painting was all she could think about.
Now, she has hand-painted murals all around the Chicago area.
Chicago’s murals & mosaics
Part of a series on public art in the city and suburbs. More murals are added every week.
Probably her best-known mural, titled “Wings” for self-evident reasons, is on the exterior of the West Loop restaurant Federales at 180 N. Morgan St. It features a pair of wings that resemble a human butterfly when someone stands in front of it.
Vyas also painted an untitled mural at Old Orchard shopping center in Skokie, and has others at restaurants and bars across the city.
Vyas, 44, says turning to murals helped her greatly after she broke off her engagement, helping her “liberate myself from frustrations and anger. My art kind of became the conduit for that.”
She’d worked in graphic design before but, she says, more on the technical aspects, rather than the creative side.
Vyas says her art reflects how her outlook has changed after going through that pain — and gives her a vehicle for others who see it to come through whatever they’re going through.
“Transformation and change is never easy,” she says. “But once you get to the other side, there’s this beauty in that journey. There’s this beauty in pain. That’s what I like to capture because we don’t talk about pain and beauty.”
Born in India, Vyas moved to Chicago after high school to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago.
As an artist, she’s known for her black-and-white style, which she says helps simplify the complex emotions she tries to convey.
“I wanted to take away all the other noise outside the emotion I was trying to understand,” Vyas says.
Though the inspiration for her art often comes from her own emotions, Vyas says people will interpret her work without necessarily understanding the artist’s intent.
“The beauty of public art is once you paint it, you kind of put the brush away,” she says.
With “Wings,” she and collaborator and fellow Chicago artist Caesar Perez say people viewing it give the mural a life of its own.
She talks of one man who took a photo in front of it and promised he would lose a lot of weight — and posed in the same spot a year later to mark his progress.
She says a woman celebrated five years of sobriety by posing with the wings as a backdrop.
Those are just the sorts of responses the artists were aiming for, Vyas says. She says the wings “were not going to be about us. They were going to be about people who took pictures in front of them. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Perez, who also has worked with Vyas on about half a dozen other murals, sees how she incorporates emotional elements into her work right from the start.
“Every piece that she does almost has a story behind it,” Perez says. “One of my favorite things about her is that she gives each thing a personality, it’s a living thing in itself.”
One of Vyas’ more vibrant murals is the one at Old Orchard. In it, a silhouette of a woman’s face transforms, in her flowing hair, into a rainbow of color.
Vyas says that, though it’s hard to choose, this is her favorite mural because she used it to show “sincerity and joy.”