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Blank canvas inspires Illinois community to dream big

Mural project brings Rockford together in diversity, unity and hope

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Mural artist Tia Richardson and SecondFirst Church senior pastor Rebecca White Newgren collaborated on a 1,700 sq. ft. community mural titled “Rockford Taking Flight.” (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — In 2004, members of Second Congregational United Church, known as SecondFirst Church since federating with First Presbyterian Church, dreamed of building a gymnasium for the community of Rockford, Illinois — and they did it.

“Little did they know that they left us a blank canvas to shine and radiate out to the west side of Rockford,” said the Rev. Rebecca White Newgren, senior pastor of SecondFirst Church. White Newgren recently spoke at a press conference and celebration of the completion of “Rockford Taking Flight,” a 1,700 square foot, 55-panel mural that fills the entire outside wall of the basketball gym and reimagines the city breaking free of racial and class boundaries.

The community mural project was led by SecondFirst Church, Jeremiah Development and muralist and community bridgebuilder Tia Chianti Richardson, an award-winning Milwaukee-based integrative community artist.

The side of the basketball gym became a blank canvas for building unity and inspiring hope through community art. (Contributed photo)


“We actually started talking about this a few years ago, thinking, ‘Wow, what could be on that wall?’” White Newgren said. Once Richardson came on board to lead the project in spring 2018, the entire community was invited to dream of a Rockford future that people wanted to see, one that maybe is different than the present. More than 200 people from all over Rockford came together last October, November and December to create the background for the mural on public paint days, using a paint-by-number process. Due to colder temperatures during the painting phase, the panels were prepped and painted inside on the floor of the church.

Some panels for the mural also went on the road to the Jubilee Center, a day center for adults living with mental illness; Christ the Rock Preschool; and Northwest Community Center, to make it convenient for people of all ages and all areas of the city to participate.

Richardson said she was moved by the raw joy that people had just to be able to paint on the separate panels that traveled to their locations. “Just because they wanted to be a part of something this big,” Richardson said. “It didn’t matter to them that the panels were not all together. They didn’t care that they were painting pieces from someplace in town maybe they’d never been to. Nobody questioned that fact. So, that enthusiasm to be part of something really says something to me.”

Artist Tia Richardson explains the project to preschoolers who participated in painting the mural. (Neil Bloom, Future Memory Media)

From the beginning of the project, Richardson said, she was told the mural isn’t about the church or religious symbols, it’s about community — the life in the community. Richardson said, “To me, we are all part of one community as human beings. We’re all parts of a greater whole, and the more we can participate in life to make something better, the better the whole can reflect its parts.”

This mural is about life, Richardson said. “We all have the same needs in life: to feel joy, to party, to celebrate, to belong and to participate in something bigger. It’s that raw life moving through us as human beings that I believe is the most precious commodity we have,” she said, “because that’s where our potential to create something from nothing comes from.”

“It was like building the plane while flying,” Richardson said, “working together through different challenges meant we had to be flexible, willing to adapt and be open-minded. That’s what it means to create something from nothing.”

White Newgren said, “Tia Richardson uses her art to bring peace and to spark joy.” The project was funded through a six-week community Kickstarter campaign that raised $15,000 in support from more than 100 donors, plus a matching gift from a Rockford community arts supporter and businesswoman, LoRayne Logan. The project also received support from community businesses and local artists, some hobbyists and some professionals who gave a great deal of time over the past year, and to help Richardson with finishing touches on the mural.

“It’s a real pleasure for me to have been part of this,” Logan said. “Anything that brings people together, anything that helps us express our hearts, anything that helps us see the beauty in every other individual is part of what enriches us and what makes me want to continue to be vitally involved in the life of this community.”

Logan heard about the mural project from TV news and thought, “In this location, in this time, this must happen,” she said.

“There are dreams in this wall, places where we have come from and where we hope to go,” White Newgren said.

“It touches me to know there are so many people willing to open their minds to opportunities like doing a giant mural together,” Richardson said, referring to residents of Rockford who came together for three community workshops to provide input on the mural’s design and those who helped her get to know the city at the beginning of the project. She recognized that people wanted her to see their city the way they see it — parts that are isolated and other parts that are doing well. Richardson said the process of creating the mural offered people from all walks of life the chance to acknowledge community challenges (represented by dark clouds on the far left of the mural) and to think of ways to make those better (such as people working together, helping and supporting one another).

“One thing I’ve noticed in my time here is that when things get difficult, people come together and help each other,” Richardson said. “To me that speaks a lot about the good will in people’s hearts here.”

Rockford filmmaker Toni Ashley McLaughlin worked with Neil Bloom of Future Memory Media to create a short video with highlights of the process from the perspective of a local high schooler, Eva, who worked on the mural.  A documentary short is in the making.

After years of planning, the entire side of the SecondFirst Church gymnasium in Rockford is a colorful mural. (Photo by Tia Richardson)

Watching the spirit of collaboration take flight, Richardson said, is what was special to her about this project, this miracle of flight that had “arms and legs and hands and more than 200 heads and hearts. In the mural, that collective spirit can be seen in the stork, delivering Rockford’s future in the form of a baby – the miracle of new life, the hope in the potential of new possibilities.”

At 9 a.m. Central Time Aug. 11 and at 7 p.m. Central Time Aug. 20, the Rev. Rebecca White Newgren will lead a guided meditation in the Psalms near the mural. Chairs will be provided and distanced on the lawn. People are also welcome to bring a mat or blanket to spread out on the ground. Masks or face shields will be required.

SecondFirst Church was created through the joining together of First Presbyterian and Second Congregational churches on Dec. 30, 2012. At this time, due to the COVID-19 health crisis, worship is being held online via Facebook Live at 10 a.m. Central Time on Sundays.

Jeremiah Development is a not-for-profit created in 2007 to promote the well-being of the neighborhood surrounding its four founding churches: Court Street United Methodist Church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, First Presbyterian Church and Second Congregational United Church of Christ.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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