AUBURN GRESHAM — A prolific South Side muralist behind art and beautification projects in the South and West sides is spearheading a massive project on the 79th Street corridor.
Using “Afrocentric designs, bold colors, patterns and symbols,” Dorian Sylvain will starting painting a 50-by-50-foot mural Wednesday on a bare wall at 7901 S. Racine Ave.
Sylvain and her sons will create a mural that will “communicate concepts like balance, strength, creativity and community” to Auburn Gresham neighbors and capture the essence of the neighborhood, she said.
Sylvain will start priming the wall this week, then there will be a community day July 23 where neighbors can pitch in to help, she said. An unveiling and celebration is planned for Aug. 13.
The project is part of the city’s Invest South/West Artist-in-Residence pilot program to add public art to Auburn Gresham, Austin, Englewood and Back of the Yards. Sylvain was one of four artists chosen by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the city’s planning and cultural affairs departments.
“It brings me joy to do work like this,” Sylvain said. “It feels as though I’ve upgraded an experience in the community, and that is something I take pleasure in.”
‘Amazing Learning Experience’
Sylvain grew up in South Shore, and her mother encouraged her artistic passions by enrolling her in music classes offered by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and theater classes at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, a non-profit organization that trains young adults in South Shore.
Sylvain found a love for set design after attending live performances with her mother, she said.
“I was so engrossed in costumes and scenery that I could hardly pay attention to the performances,” Sylvain said. “At the time, the Black theater was a hub for performing artists, directors and costumers. My mother helped connect me with the local community theater. She was great at helping me target and find those relationships so I could learn more.”
That love for set design took Sylvain to the American Academy of Art College and San Francisco to further her career.
Sylvain returned to Chicago after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Bay Area in 1989, and she built relationships as a set designer with ETA, a “smaller Black community theater” that offered an “amazing learning experience,” she said.
After having three boys “back-to-back,” Sylvain had to segue into a new career that would demand less of her time in the evening but allow her to still flex her artistic muscles, she said.
Sylvain had painted murals in her past, including one with the Chicago Public Arts Group in South Shore in the ’80s, she said.
Sylvain applied those skills and began commissioning residential projects while her children were in school, she said. She “had a whole bag of tricks,” like painting rooms and choosing art collections for homeowners, that allowed her to control her schedule, she said.
As Sylvain’s children got older, she moved back to the “public art realm,” she said. And her sons joined her, she said, following in the path her mother once created for her.
“As children, they got dragged around from project to project, and they grew up in the mix of this lifestyle I have had as an artist,” Sylvain said. “Now, they collaborate with me. I [was] a one-man band for a long time, so it’s nice to have my children contributing in such a significant way.”
With the 79th Street mural, Sylvain plans to tap into the “Afrocentric aesthetic” that dominates her artistic style, she said.
The mural will feature Adinkra, African symbols used by the Akan peoples of Ghana rich with meaning, Sylvain said. Many of the symbols have already been paved in the concrete on 79th Street in Auburn Gresham.
Sylvain will also use bright colors, including orange and yellow, reminiscent of Kente cloth, she said.
Neighbors can visit the mural site in July to paint Adinkra stencils that will be incorporated in the final design, she said.
“The idea is to use bright colors and strong shapes on a large scale so that it’s visible from different directions in the community,” Sylvain said. “We’re hoping to capture the essence of the community and where it’s moving.”
The 79th Street mural will be the first of several summer projects on the South Side for Sylvain. She’s also the lead artist for Mahalia Jackson Court, a public pop-up plaza set for vacant land in Chatham this summer, she said.
Leaders at the University of Illinois Chicago, one of the future tenants at Auburn Gresham’s Healthy Hub, a healthy living center also destined for 79th Street, asked her to paint a community mural in their office, she said.
There’s plenty of work to do, Sylvain said. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When I speak to aspiring muralists, I always tell them that one project always leads to another. Pour yourself into it so that when you walk away, you feel like you did your best,” Sylvain said.
“The same applies here. Hopefully, this mural will inspire someone else that wants me to work in their neighborhood, and I’ll have another opportunity to collaborate with a new group of people in a new space.”
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