Look closely at the colorful mosaic outside Uplift Community High School in Uptown, and you’ll see thousands of ceramic tiles that together form giant images of community activists and protesters.
There’s an image of a woman demonstrating, part of an indigenous Mexican social movement, a bandana covering her face, her wrists breaking free of their chains.
The sight of a demonstrator in a face mask might be familiar today, given the Black Lives Matter gatherings of recent months. But this artwork was created 10 years ago.
“I think that, although it was birthed 10 years ago, unfortunately we live in a society that has not done its due diligence for justice,” says Angela Clay, community engagement coordinator at Uplift, 900 W. Wilson Ave. “Until that happens, that mural and that visual will continue to ring and resonate with people all over.”
Kamelia Hristeva, chief executive officer of Green Star Movement, a not-for-profit that works to create public art across the city, was the lead artist working on the mosaic. The images she helped create foreshadowed current events, she says, and also pay tribute to social justice movements that have been going on for years.
“With the pandemic, that wasn’t the reason why she was wearing the bandana,” Hristeva says. “But it’s almost foreshadowing. These issues are not new issues. These are issues a lot of communities, including the Uptown community, have been fighting for decades.”
The wall is scattered with images of activists holding signs with quotations from Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Barack Obama and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The images of strong leaders should be an inspiration for students at Uplift, Clay says.
“I think to see those leaders in just powerful faces every day is a constant reminder to them that they can one day obviously aspire to be like them, but they are actually on the right path to actually make a difference,” she says.
Social justice is part of the school’s mission. It opened in 2004 after community members fought to get a high school.
“The history goes back to a very, very tough fight for community members to claim stake in the ward,” Clay says.
Nearby, the People’s Music School, 931 W. Eastwood Ave., also features a mosaic, featuring music and musicians. The school provides tuition-free music lessons to students whose families otherwise couldn’t afford them.
Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those lessons have had to go online. The school’s staff uses the mosaic to bring a piece of the building to its virtual classrooms.
“A lot of our staff uses the deck pictures for our backgrounds on Zoom because it just really lightens up that whole space,” says Lilly Torres, the school’s associate director of community.
The ceramic mosaic, installed in 2012, takes up three walls surrounding bleacher seating on an outdoor rooftop deck. The pieces that make up the mosaic form images of students playing instruments as sparkling musical notes pour from a globe.
Torres says the school had about 400 students participating in its virtual summer program, with more than that signed up for the fall.
The background tiles on the mosaic are shimmering yellows, blues and reds.
“The light reflects off of it,” Torres says, “so it brightens up, like, that whole second floor because there’s a lot of yellows and glass and things up there.”
Like at Uplift, the People’s Music School’s past is reflected in the art. The school opened in 1976. Images of the founders and former students are scattered throughout the mosaic, printed onto ceramic tiles.
“You’ll see a lot of old pictures like the founder at the beginning,” Torres says. “You’ll see staff and students and families.”
The People’s Music School mosaic also was overseen by Green Star Movement, which worked with Chicago’s After School Matters to offer Chicago Public Schools students a chance to experience what it’s like to create art.
“One of our goals is to not only beautify public space but give youth an opportunity to see what it’s like working and creating art for our communities,” says Hristeva, who also was the lead artist for the People’s Music School mosaic.
Thirty high school students took part.
“They worked with me and the other artists to craft the design,” Hristeva says. “They then cut tiles and placed the tiles. They grouted it. They were right next to us the whole time.”
Melissa Mister, After School Matters’ chief program officer, says: “When your project or presentation can be something lasting like a mural or a piece of public art or mosaic or something like that, that’s huge. It means that everybody is going to be able to enjoy it for years to come.”