As a kid, Felix Maldonado Jr. remembers being scolded for drawing on walls. Now, he’s paid to decorate them with his murals.
Among his work: “Bears On Parade,” a mural in the 3400 block of North Ashland Avenue that he completed in October 2020 with the help of assistants Lisa Jones and Omar Marin after more than a year of delays due to construction nearby and the coronavirus pandemic.
Maldonado, 50, of East Chicago, Ind., was one of six artists chosen from 200 applicants to help beautify the “Low Line” — a small park and pathway beneath the CTA’s Paulina Street Brown Line L stop.
Maldonado — who sometimes works under the name “Flex” — says he chose bears for the nearly 1,300-square-feet-wide project in part as a nod to the Bears and the Cubs but also because he was looking to represent what the area was like in pre-colonial days, when black bears could be found around Chicago.
But he made his bears red because he wanted to feature only the colors you’ll find on Chicago’s city flag — blue, white and red.
The spray-painted mural was Maldonado’s first after his mother Teresa Fuentes Maldonado died of COVID-19, and he sees it as inextricably linked to her memory.
Maldonado remembers first trying his hand at art when he was 5. He liked to draw on the walls. He says his mother had another idea of what makes a proper canvas and got him art supplies including a sketchbook.
After getting an advertising degree from the American Academy of Art in Chicago, he worked for several years in the industry until getting laid off in 2001 — which he now calls a “miracle” because it brought him back to his real art.
“I had this God-given talent that I didn’t even use,” he says.
For the next 20 years, Maldonado worked as an independent artist, with exhibitions from San Francisco to Manhattan.
He also did murals, including a towering one of the Jackson 5 in their hometown of Gary — painted on a building that since has been demolished.
During the pandemic, Maldonado says he has stayed afloat financially by painting murals in offices and restaurants whose operators used the time during COVID-related shutdowns for renovations.
“While everybody was locked down, I was redecorating and renovating restaurants and corporate offices,” he says.
In addition to his mother, he says he also lost an uncle and cousin to COVID-19, and got sick himself.
Maldonado says “Bears On Parade” is dedicated to his mother, who died in August 2020, not just because of the timing of her death but also because of the familial spirit he tried to show between the bear cubs and mothers.
Jones says she could see that working on the mural was “very emotional” for Maldonado because his mom had been his “biggest fan.”
“You can’t help but somehow want to bring that love and connection that you have for someone that’s no longer here in body,” Jones says.
Maldonado says the mural not only reminds him of his mom, but also how far his art has come with her encouragement.
“When I finished, I just got so emotional,” he says. “Just knowing I had to keep going. That mural will always remind me of my mom.”