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“Light the Spark,” a mural by Kayla Mahaffey, wraps the walls of the Calumet Heights Community Arts Center, 8824 S. Stony Island Ave.
“Light the Spark,” a mural by Kayla Mahaffey, wraps the walls of the Calumet Heights Community Arts Center, 8824 S. Stony Island Ave.
Óscar Sánchez

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Kayla Mahaffey’s new mural adds a spark to Calumet Heights arts community center

The Chicago artist’s latest project merges realism with cartoons to brighten the South Side neighborhood and the True Life Foundation’s center.

“We all have to have each other’s back,” says Kayla Mahaffey, who transformed the vanilla exterior of the True to Life Foundation’s Calumet Heights Community Arts Center last month, wrapping it in a colorful mural celebrating the people in the South Side neighborhood.

“And that’s what this mural is about. It’s all about coming together and lifting up each other.”

The artwork — titled “Light the Spark” — shows two Black children facing each other and holding hands, a blue ribbon tying their wrists together.

Mahaffey says it represents the community’s bonds and gives a sense of people working together.

“We can learn not only from the youth but also from holding their hands along the way,” says Mahaffey, 26.

The background is a fiery red-yellow gradient that represents, Mahaffey says, an “essence of fire,” adding warmth and passion.

Surrounding the two children, there are cartoon smiley faces, flowers, bubbles and other playful illustrations that Mahaffey says merge realism with whimsy — a signature element of her “Afro-pop, Afro-surrealism” style.

One of the yellow smiley faces is wearing a burglar mask around the eyes and sticking out a blue tongue while raising a fist.

“The little smiley face guy, he was just with his tongue sticking out — he was more kind of taking down the bad guys,” Mahaffey says.

Artist Kayla Mahaffey says she kept three of the four walls she painted simple, with illustrations of flowers, the center’s logo and the skyline.
Artist Kayla Mahaffey says she kept three of the four walls she painted simple, with illustrations of flowers, the center’s logo and the skyline.
Óscar Sánchez

On the opposite side of the wall is a second smiley face, the face of a blue-petaled flower, for peace and unity.

This was Mahaffey’s third Chicago mural, though the first that involved wrapping an entire building in art. She says she kept the remaining three walls simple, decorating them with flowers, the not-for-profit center’s logo and the Chicago skyline.

Kayla Mahaffey, who has worked as a professional artist for four years, says her style of art can be described as “Afro-pop, Afro-surrealism.”
Kayla Mahaffey, who has worked as a professional artist for four years, says her style of art can be described as “Afro-pop, Afro-surrealism.”
Larry Stackhouse

Mahaffey says she wanted the mural to tie in what the community center is about — an uplifting space, at 8824 S. Stony Island Ave., where neighborhood residents can participate in art-based, family-oriented activities such as after-school programs, senior workshops, and Zumba and yoga classes.

The mural was done in partnership with the Southeast Chicago Chamber of Commerce, which has been working on public art projects for four years, according to Frankye Payne, the business group’s executive director. It sponsors one or two murals each summer, aiming to help bring traffic to businesses in the area, Payne says.

Velinda Alexander, the community center’s founder, says Mahaffey’s artwork has drawn a lot of attention.

“We were having a hard time [with] people in the community even knowing we were here,” Alexander says. “Now, we come out in the afternoon, and people are just standing out taking pictures.”

Another partner behind Mahaffey’s mural was Alpha Bomber Productions, which works on large-scale mural installations. Owner Abie Vasquez says the aim is to beautify neighborhoods and organizations around the city. Vasquez says he knew the arts center, which opened in 2017, could use a facelift.

Kayla Mahaffey works on “Light the Spark” at the Calumet Heights Community Arts Center, 8824 S. Stony Island Ave.
Kayla Mahaffey works on “Light the Spark” at the Calumet Heights Community Arts Center, 8824 S. Stony Island Ave.
Provided

“It’s an arts community center, but it didn’t represent that,” he says. “So we knew we needed something to stand out.”

Along with Free Lunch Academy — which provided more than a dozen volunteers to help — Vasquez says those who worked on the project at the arts center worked together to “knock it off in a shorter period of time.” The center also got a spruced-up garden.

“They painted rocks, tree stumps, flower pots, garden beds, everything,” Alexander says.

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