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Blank canvas inspires Illinois community to dream big


Mural project brings Rockford together in diversity, unity and hope

February 9, 2021

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

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.

“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 in late 2019 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 altogether. 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.”

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.”

Tammy Warren, Communications Associate, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  Mural Project

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Nikki Collins, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Paula Cooper, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

Loving God, we marvel at all that can be accomplished when done in your name and with your blessing. Thank you for empowering your disciples to overcome the seemingly insurmountable to extend your love to those in need. Amen.

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