Berwyn artist Ken Reif loves nature and trees, as he shows in this Oak Park mural of a giant tree.

Berwyn artist Ken Reif loves nature and trees, as he shows in this Oak Park mural of a giant tree.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

In Oak Park mural, Ken Reif’s towering tree takes centerstage because ‘I love trees and nature’

The Berwyn artist also likes to feature blues legends like John Lee Hooker, a family dog and Chicago bungalows in his public artwork.

Berwyn artist Ken Reif traces his love for trees — which he’s fond of replicating in paintings, including two murals in Oak Park — to his childhood.

Growing up in South Holland, his parents would take him camping at least once a year.

“I’d take trips around Lake Michigan,” says Reif, 66. “They took me to Yellowstone and Glacier. I liked the forest a lot.”

He planned to study forestry in college but decided on art school instead.

A friend once gave him a photograph of a tree from the ground level looking up.

“I wanted to paint that, and I did, and I wanted to keep going,” he says.

Another Oak Park mural featuring trees by Berwyn artist Ken Reif.

Another Oak Park mural featuring trees by Berwyn artist Ken Reif.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

One of his murals in Oak Park features a single giant tree — Reif thinks it’s an oak but allows that it might be a maple — with bark so vivid you can imagine the coarseness and a glorious green canopy.

Painted in 2010, it was among the first in a series of murals that’ve gone up on railroad retaining walls along North and South boulevards.

“Everything I do starts with a black background,” Reif says. “I paint all black and put my color on top of that. The contrast really makes the color come out, makes the colors pop.”

He says the mural has lasted because of the paint he uses and “really good varnish.” Also, “It’s on the north side,” he says, so “it isn’t in direct sunlight” that can fade colors.

Another mural on a different segment of the retaining walls shows a birch forest as the sun is setting, the sky alit with brilliant reds, oranges and yellows.

“He’s amazing,” says Camille Wilson White, executive director of the Oak Park Area Arts Council that oversees the “mini-mural” project along the retaining walls.

Berwyn artist Ken Reif in his element.

Berwyn artist Ken Reif in his element.

Provided

In addition to his fondness for trees, she says, “He’s also got blues guys.”

Reif did a mural on one of the retaining walls of John Lee Hooker, the late blues great. And he’s about to embark on a mural of the late Chicago blues legend Muddy Waters.

“I used to play in blues bands,” Reif says. “When I turned 50, though, I decided to go more toward art than music.

A mural of John Lee Hooker in Oak Park by Berwyn artist Ken Reif.

A mural of John Lee Hooker in Oak Park by Berwyn artist Ken Reif.

Provided

“Now, I’m a full-time artist. It’s my full-time occupation. It’s just such a passion. Now, music is more of a hobby. Painting the blues guys, it keeps me connected with music.”

He also did a mural in Oak Park of a family pet.

Ken Reif’s mural in Oak Park of a past family pet.

Ken Reif’s mural in Oak Park of a past family pet.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

“That was our dog,” Reif says. “His name was Barney, and he had passed away, and I had done a painting of him for our home. I sent that in as a submission for a mural, and they liked it, and I painted it there. I called it ‘Barney Knows.’ It’s a painting where his nose is prominent, so it’s kind of a play on that.”

Reif also painted a mural of a Chicago bungalow in the same area.

“It’s a Chicago thing,” he says. “I’d already painted several bungalows. They were both commissions . . . one was for a Culver’s.

“It’s very labor-intensive because I’m painting every brick and the mortar in between them.”

A mural in Oak Park of a Chicago bungalow by Berwyn artist Ken Reif.

A mural in Oak Park of a Chicago bungalow by Berwyn artist Ken Reif.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Reif’s Oak Park murals are his only public artwork right now.

“Mostly, I do canvas work,” he says — often featuring trees, naturally. “I love trees and nature, so that’s what I do.

“It’s so energizing to be in the forest, and I like to consider my work to be — I tell people it’s renewable energy. I want people to feel renewed when they see my artwork — just like listening to some of your favorite music.”

Murals and Mosaics Newsletter
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Chicago’s murals & mosaics

Part of a series on public art in the city and suburbs. Know of a mural or mosaic? Tell us where, and email a photo to murals@suntimes.com. We might do a story on it.

Click on the map below for a selection of Chicago-area murals

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