Megan Sterling, a Rogers Park artist, finds beauty and importance in the physical structures of Chicago and also in the people who make up the city.
Her only mural, titled “Cityscape,” painted in 2016 on the south wall of the viaduct beneath the L tracks at Glenwood and Columbia avenues in Rogers Park, features black-and-white fingers nearly 10 feet tall that rise from the ground like miniature skyscrapers.
The 16 massive fingers are set against a sky-blue background, arranged to mimic an urban landscape of high-rise buildings.
Sterling, 38, says the fingers represent the people of the city — “us making up the cityscape and the people being that.”
Before painting the mural, Sterling had drawn a similar piece, also called “Cityscape,” based on her own fingers. That one originally went on display at a gallery at Boise State University in Idaho.
“When I did these giant fingers,” Sterling says, “it was, like, ‘These sort of look like people.’ I really liked the idea of our cityscape being made up of the people. It’s made by the people, and it is the people. And that’s what makes the city and makes the community.”
Sterling, originally from Idaho Falls, Idaho, teaches printmaking and drawing at Columbia College Chicago and is assistant director of the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative printmaking shop on the North Side. She says art has always been part of her life.
“It’s just my very being,” Sterling says. “I was obsessively drawing and obsessed with art from a very young age.”
Sterling’s art background is largely in drawing and printmaking — in which multiple copies of an original work are made by pressing an etched and inked piece of wood or other medium onto paper or fabric. She got a bachelor of fine arts degree in printmaking from Boise State and a master of fine arts degree in studio arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 2015, Sterling’s boyfriend Matt Bodett was applying to be part of a Rogers Park murals project and encouraged her to apply as well.
“I was resistant at first because my background is more in printmaking and drawing, and I was, like, ‘I don’t know how to paint,’ ” Sterling says.
Bodett, a 39-year-old painter and adjunct art professor at Loyola University Chicago, says he thought Sterling’s previous drawing of large fingers would work well on the larger scale of a mural. He told her to apply and said that, if she got chosen, he’d help with the painting.
Bodett didn’t get picked to paint the mural. Instead, Sterling says she was “shocked and surprised” to find out she was.
What followed “was kind of a saga,” according to Sterling, who started work on the mural in August 2016. The viaduct where she was painting was in rough condition. So it took some work to scrape and prime the wall before she could paint.
Then, graffiti and heavy rains slowed things further.
“Even though it was under the viaduct, water would just seep down, and the paint would just come off,” Sterling says.
After months of juggling work on the mural and teaching printmaking and drawing at Northeastern Illinois University, Sterling completed the viaduct artwork in November 2016.
She says that, as she was working on it, people would stop and ask why she was painting the fingers in black and white.
“I don’t feel like it’s my place to be trying to speak for other people, but I also didn’t want to negate the fact that Rogers Park is one of the most diverse neighborhoods,” Sterling says. “I wanted it to be something that anybody could see themselves in without trying to put race into it, trying to find that neutral ground of not speaking for other people but trying to consider that.”
Just on the other side of the street from “Cityscape” is another mural, titled “Daisy Field,” depicting a garden of flowers, painted by Chicago artist Brenda Barnum.
Barnum calls the mural project that she and Sterling took part in “a brilliant way to engage the community and give painters an opportunity to work on a large scale.”
And she’s a fan of what Sterling produced: “I thought the ‘Cityscape’ mural was lovely and simple in its hands-on statement.”