Pedestrians walking by the College Avenue train station are in for a colorful surprise. The previously plain brick wall on the building that houses Essencia Yoga Studio is now covered with a mural called “Pearls of the Universe.”
Painted by artist R.J. Ogren, the mural aims to celebrate Wheaton’s diversity and the many backgrounds and ethnicities that the city’s residents represent.
The mural has been a work in progress over the last four weeks, and will be officially unveiled on Oct.6. The project was started when Essencia Yoga Studio owner, Jeannine Bush Clinton, began to wonder how to reach the community of refugees who lived in the apartment complex across from Essencia’s building.
“I was thinking, how can I communicate that everyone is welcome here? [at the yoga studio.]… but then as it started to grow, it was more the celebration of diversity that we have in Wheaton,” said Clinton.
The mural is based off of a poem by Wheaton resident Mehret Asgedom called “The Pearl,” which chronicles Asgendom’s journey as a refugee from Ethiopia. Clinton, who came to Wheaton from El Salvador, had Asgendom as a student at her studio and asked her to write a poem chronicling her journey as a refugee. She read Asgendom’s poem and said she knew that she wanted to somehow incorporate it into the mural.
“It was right in front of me that her poetry needed to be the inspiration behind this. I asked her, ‘do you think that you could write a poem, because you embody the very message of this journey that we want to celebrate?’…this poem is a picturesque allegory, as she calls it, of the human journey,” said Clinton.
R.J. Ogren, a retired Disney painter who has painted several sets for Wheaton Drama, was commissioned to paint the mural. Ogren previously worked on such large projects as The Pirates of the Caribbean ride and The Haunted Mansion attraction at Magic Kingdom, as well as painting portraits of celebrities such as Liza Minelli and Sonny and Cher. This mural, however, holds a particular sense of pride for him.
Ogren was selected out of a handful of artists to paint the mural, which he says has stretched him because of the detail and sheer size of the mural, which is 70 feet long and 20 feet high, his longest work. Though he has had to contend with high heat and rain, he feels confident that he will finish by the dedication day. Through the mural, he hopes “To show the diversity of Wheaton and coming together of all people and the hope of living together in harmony.
The mural has been financially supported by the Community Relations Commission and Fine and Cultural Arts Commission, as well as by donations.
According to the Daily Herald, those who donated $50 earlier on in the design process got their name in a star on the mural. In addition, because community was such a huge emphasis of the project, two days were specified for residents to come and write their names in small circles, or pearls, that are a part of the mural.
The mural depicts different international landmarks, such as the great pyramids of Egypt and The Eiffel Tower in France, and will include people from all over the world dressed in their country’s traditional clothing when it is finished. Many people have already shared their remarks towards the new downtown addition.
“Everyone seems very excited. They all seem to have a different part that is their favorite. I get compliments when I am working and also on the Facebook page ‘Pearls of the Universe,’ which has new photos each week. Either that or they are just being nice to me. I feel very good about the development and progress of the mural,” said Ogren.
Clinton, too, has already had positive feedback from the very group she was trying to reach; the refugee population living in the DuPage county area.
“I had a Nepali woman, through translation, say… ‘thank you so much for seeing me,’ and I thought, if that is it, this idea of embracing and acknowledging this beautiful presence, then it just makes me so happy and I think that everybody who has been pitching in sees that as a priority, too, just to love on the diverse journeys that we have all had,” said Clinton.
According to Clinton, the poem and the subsequent process of creating the mural has inspired the process of setting the poem to music and even the production of a mini documentary.
“It has been something that has gained momentum. Everybody that hears about it wants to be part of it and then it has become this contagious thing,” said Clinton. “I have never seen something flow so effortlessly, so it feels like such a privilege to be part of it.”
The contributors of the mural hope that it will serve as a physical landmark that inspires people to cherish the diversity of the individual journey and to appreciate the richness that it adds to community.
“It’s a reminder that it just takes a little thought, a little seed, that can hopefully bring about a lot of good,” said Clinton.