A few months ago, the parking lot at 55th Street and Fairfield Avenue in Gage Park was pretty barren.
Now, it features a five-panel spread of murals that aim to bring some beauty to the Southwest Side neighborhood, celebrate the community’s largely Latino heritage and provide an outlet for young artists.
The Gage Park Latinx Council, founded in 2018, started the Gage Park Mural Project last August. Beside providing art, the idea was to “give the youth an opportunity to learn skills and create works of art in Gage Park,” says Antonio Santos, 30, the group’s co-founder and executive director.
Santos calls the resulting mix of art and activism “artivism.”
So far, artists ranging from 15 to 24 years old have created six murals. At least four more are planned by the end of the year.
The largest piece in the parking lot gallery is a towering panel bearing the welcoming message: “Bienvenidos a Gage Park” in pink, purple and turquoise.
The neighborhood hasn’t traditionally had much public art, says artist Mario Mena, 30, a Gage Park resident for 20 years who’s heading the mural project. There also wasn’t much to reflect Gage Park the community’s heavily Latino population.
“We created a landmark so people could remember: We have artwork here, too,” says Mena, whose work can be seen mostly on the Southwest Side and in Pilsen and Auburn Gresham. “It’s the unofficial entrance to Gage Park.”
Among the art is an image of the Pokemon character Pikachu amid a field of flowers with bulbs as hearts. Inside each heart is a design or message from kids in the neighborhood, Mena says.
Three panels share the same background and blend at their edges in a display of color with a message.
“Earth People,” designed by Josémanuel Hernandez, was inspired by a rally in Washington Park promoting trans Black lives.
“The demonstration of joy where it isn’t supposed to be is itself radical,” Hernandez says. “It turned into this idea of people being rooted in the earth, finding connection, joy and solidarity.”
At the end of the series of panels, Black and Brown women are seen in a mural with the words “Viva La Mujer.” It was inspired by the Chicano art-style of its creator, Nancy Gutierrez, who has worked off and on as an artist for two years and has lived in Gage Park for six years.
“I grew up with just my mom and sisters, for the most part,” she says. “Women empowerment for my first mural would be pretty cool.”
Gutierrez, Hernandez and Mena also worked on a mural at 51st Street and California Avenue, in the parking lot of the restaurant La Quebrada, that features two masked workers, one with a raised fist, harvesting fruit against a backdrop of purple mountains on fire amid smoke that’s a reference to California’s devastating fires last year.
Mena says it celebrates the “immigrant communities who help put food on the table.”