Local pastor Shawna Bowman (left) smiles for a photo with artist Kathryn Eli (right) near Eli and Shawn Smith's mural artwork at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy., completed Oct. 1. Credit: Jennifer Martin

JEFFERSON PARK — Commuters and residents near the heart of Jefferson Park may notice more pops of color peeping out from behind a large apartment complex.

After months of planning and organizing, a giant community mural in the parking lot of 5150 N. Northwest Hwy., home to the area’s affordable housing complex, has been installed.

Spanning more than 10 parking lots and measuring 128 feet wide, the mural along the train rail wall was completed this past weekend and features work from 11 muralists — as well as assistance from dozens of helping hands who came out to work on a recent community paint day.

“It was a heartfelt day,” said Shawna Bowman, pastor of Friendship Community Place, housed in the first floor of the building. “Residents helped paint, too. When you pull into the parking lot, there’s a love and brightness now.”

Spanning more than 10 parking lots, the 128-foot mural behind 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. was completed at the end of September and features work from 11 muralists, partially seen Sept. 28, 2023. Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago

The colorful mural, which features fantastical nature scenes and positive symbols, happy characters, musical notes and a Chicago flag, was a collaborative and supportive project, emblematic of Friendship Community Place’s mission in serving the community and making residents of the building feel more part of the community, Bowman said.

Friendship partnered with the building’s developer, Full Circle Communities, to organize and commission the work, and it was managed by former 45th Ward Alderman John Arena.

The mural is a celebration of diversity and friendship, said Shawn Smith, one of the artists who lives in Portage Park and paints under the moniker Shawnimals.

“To me, the narrative is this idea of Chicago being a cultural destination and a cultural melting pot, represented not just through murals and street artists but also the imagery,” Smith said. “For mine, with these shapes and characters, even if cartoony and simple, fun, they’re analog for the diversity of our community. It does take shapes, colors, emotions to make this world work.”

Smith, who has painted over 30 murals in Chicago that mostly feature his signature creatures he calls “friendship piles,” said he loved being part of a project in his own community. The mural’s environment and craggy wall influenced the work and painting experience, another fun aspect to painting outside, he said.

“It can be gray, overgrown, but then all of a sudden, a train rolls through. … It’s those moments not expected that are colorful and give you pause,” he said. “In those moments, there is a little bit of beauty that can come from public art in the space.” 

Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago

The work livens up the corner not only for the residents who live in the building, but also for folks nearby, especially parents who want more accessible public art to show their children, Smith said. As a parent, the mural can bring a “sense of wonder” for the neighborhood kids, he said.

Fellow artist Kathryn Eli, who has painted several other murals in the community, took the lead in creating the work’s design and picking the artists for the project, she said in an Instagram post.

“The overarching theme was LOVE — love for nature, love for family, heritage, community and spirituality, love for the city as OUR city, a place of creativity and diversity,” Eli wrote.

Other artists who contributed to painting the mural include Javi Azuna, Karl Jahnke, Brianne Hans, Chester Elvin, Penny Pinch, Birdmilk, Matr, Kozmo and Natalia Virafuentes.

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