Student and local artists forge a mural of unity


Patrick Murphy

Student and local artists progress in painting the Unity Mural.

Parker Otto and Ashley Dwy, Reporters

DeKALB – The Lincoln Highway Bridge that goes over the Kishwaukee River was initially home to hateful, racist graffiti but, in defiance of this hate, a team of artists have come together to forge a mural of unity which is nearing completion.

Originally commissioned by the Hometown Association of REALTORS and spearheaded by Fifth Ward Alderperson Scott McAdams, the mural is intended to depict a message of togetherness in light of the death of George Floyd and subsequent, nation-wide protests demanding justice and racial equality, according to a July 28 Northern Star Article.

Aaron Robertson, a local, self-taught urban artist, was selected to paint the mural alongside students Shannon Gallagher, Jordan Jacobs and Ivy Vargas. Together, the four have spent months creating a piece of art featuring messages of peace and combining traditional acrylic and urban spray paints Robertson said.

Robertson had the idea to paint a mural and approached McAdams about it, McAdams said.

“We didn’t have a mural policy before, and we needed one in place for insurance purposes and also approval of the content could be a huge issue,” McAdams said. “We wanted a mural not particularly controversial, but still impactful.”

The city manager approved this mural without need for a vote, McAdams said. 

Also featured on the mural are civil rights icons Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks who will be depicted alongside two quotes, Jacobs said. Those quotes will be King’s “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” and Parks’ “each person must live their life as a model for others.

The mural has been gaining much support from the public with citizens of DeKalb and students coming down to see how it’s progressing, Robertson said. 

Members of DeKalb’s government have also voiced support for the project including First Ward Alderperson Carolyn Morris who said she was impressed by the ambition of the artists and with the message of the mural.

“It represents the start of a lot of progress in our city and that the city supports this progress,” Morris said. “But we also have a lot of progress to make.”

McAdams is a fan of public art, and wanted to use this mural as a chance to bring art back to the city, and make DeKalb a sort of art hub, McAdams said.

Mayor Jerry Smith also said he approved of the mural and how its creation involved the partnership of NIU and the city of DeKalb.

“This is an excellent example of community collaboration, with one of our alderman [McAdams] interfacing with a realtor group to accomplish something great for our community,” Smith said. “I’m so proud to see this as an artistic expression of the peace and harmony we’d all like to see as NIU and DeKalb continue to work together.”

The project has also received some backlash with people coming down to the mural to either glare or shout “all lives matter.”

In response to these critics, the artists have just shaken it off and continue to work on their project, Gallagher said. 

“Let them think what they think,” Robertson said. “There’s only so much hate a person can harbor.”

The mural itself is apolitical with “black lives matter” not even appearing on the mural, Robertson said. Rather than being politically divisive, the artists have chosen a simple, but powerful message of unity. 

Upon completion, the artists will begin planning more projects including a mural on the River Walk bridge depicting freight trains and a mural on the Annie Glidden underpass, Robertson said.

“[For these projects], we’re hoping to get more art students involved to boost their resumes,” Ghallager said. 

Originally planned to be completed in early October, an ankle injury sustained by Robertson hindered production. Now, the mural is expected to be completed by the end of the month before the cold weather sinks in, Robertson said.

“Enjoy it,” Robertson said. “It will be here forever.”