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From the Chicago skyline to the West Loop, this painter’s work brightens up the city

Cecilia Renteria is trying to recruit more women to the painting trade.

This organized labor profile was underwritten by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades’ Painters District Council 14.

Walls have always served as a blank canvas for Cecelia Renteria.

As a kid, that meant trouble. Mom didn’t appreciate the murals she’d scrawl on the walls at home with permanent markers.

But a couple of decades later, Renteria, 35, of Brookfield, has turned her mischievous youthful hobby into a career. In 2016, she left work as a loss-prevention specialist for various retail stores to join the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades’ Painters District Council 14. Now, she’s adding color to walls all day.

“All of the painting and drawing has paid off,” Renteria says with a laugh. “I think this job is a perfect fit for me.”

Perfect even if commercial painting is hardly kids’ stuff.

Cecelia Renteria, a journeyperson with All-Tech Decorating, searches for paint colors at the Painters DC 14 Apprenticeship Program Facility in Berkley, Ill.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

As a journeyman painter for All-Tech Decorating Co., a Romeoville contractor, Renteria finds that much of her job involves grueling prep work inside office and residential buildings.

“I think a lot of people have the misconception that you just throw paint on the wall, and it’s done,” Renteria says. “But there’s a lot of work before you can even start even thinking about the painting.”

That means preparing and priming surfaces by sanding irregularities, filling cracks and holes and removing old paint or excess dirt and grease.

Renteria says she spends her shifts in a constant motion, often in strenuous positions. She’s always stooping, kneeling, climbing, carrying or perched on a ladder while using tools using like scrapers, sandblasters and rollers and brushes.

Cecelia Renteria is a painter with All-Tech Decorating.
Cecelia Renteria is a painter with All-Tech Decorating.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

All of that takes a toll on the body.

“As someone who grew up playing sports, you definitely feel it after a couple of years,” she says. “Especially in your knees and back and muscles.”

Due to COVID-19, the degree of difficulty has increased because of the extra mask. In addition to ventilators and other masks to protect from paint fumes, thinners and other chemicals, she now has to wear a PPE mask that further restricts her breathing.

But the difficult work brings her a sense of pride and accomplishment. Renteria regularly sees the NEMA tower in the Chicago skyline, and it’s a reminder of the two and a half years she spent adding color to nearly every inch of the 800-room, 76-story skyscraper — Chicago’s tallest residential building.

“It’s pretty awesome to see this building all the time and know that I was part of it,” she says.

She’s now coloring the interiors of Facebook’s new 263,000-square-foot office at 151 N. Franklin St. downtwon with the social media giant’s ubiquitous cobalt blue color.

One of Renteria’s missions is to recruit other women to join what’s still a male-dominated industry. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up only 8.9% of painters in the construction industry. On job sites, she says she typically sees two or three women out of 100 workers.

She’s hoping to reach young women who might also want to turn their penchant for painting into a full-time career.

“It’s a possibility for anyone. Women can work with their hands and do everything that a male worker can do.”