Century Walk: Artist's brush sweeps across notes and notables
September 27, 2005 — Source: Naperville Sun, The (IL) — Author: Colt Foutz
How do you turn a sickly green garage door into a historical epic? Marry two art forms and add a splash of the personality that has sparked a community.
In "The Great Concerto," Century Walk's 23rd public art piece, muralist Bart Gunderson traces Naperville's history on a 30- by 75-foot canvas, with a nod to the musical tradition that makes the door of the Community Concert Center on which he painted more than mere gathering place.
Sitting center stage in the grand polyphony of Naperville musical life is the Municipal Band, whose presence in Central Park on summer Thursdays has struck a clear, consistent note through three centuries.
Mothers, sons, grandmothers, great-great-grandfathers -- generations have bobbed their heads to the maestro's baton. With the band as historical foundation, Century Walk and Gunderson made the audience the centerpiece, rendering a collection of 62 recognizable souls spanning time and, in one case, an ocean, but all with some connection to Naperville.
During the 1,600 hours Gunderson devoted to the project, traveling from his home in Vail, Colo., to spend days riding a 40-foot lift to render his brushstrokes, he was buoyed by the people he met here who made the mural happen.
"It was kind of like doing a marathon and people were on the sides saying, `Keep going, keep going, keep going,'" Gunderson said. "I don't have that experience working in a studio all by myself."
Gunderson lived in Naperville for a time after high school, when he worked in the mailroom and as an illustrator for the Chicago Sun-Times. For the past 18 years he's made his living as a muralist, with some of his painting visible locally on the walls of downtown hangouts Club Mama Lu, Frankie's Blue Room and Features.
But "The Great Concerto" is Gunderson's largest continuous piece. In it, he blends realistic and abstract styles to simulate what it's like to see music.
"You have the rhythm from the left side of the mural rolling down to center and rolling back up as if to look at the timing mechanism of music, or a conductor waving his hand," he said. "There are areas both fragmented and detailed. (Like the contrast in musical themes) you get more whimsical areas and more progressively detailed areas."
Gunderson used pure, vibrant colors -- yellows, blues and reds -- and broke them down with blacks and browns to keep the tone even across the whole field of color.
"I didn't want to compete with the building's natural tones," he said.
Elmer Koerner, conductor of the Municipal Band from 1930 to 1965, stands at the center, Naperville history swirling around his conducting hands. Band members in period uniforms follow his downbeat. Several of the band's former homes are represented, including the Central Park gazebo. Cannons recall the annual "1812 Overture" performance. The cityscape includes a church steeple, perhaps with pealing bells, and townfolk turn to the tunes of Naperville's old barn dances.
In rendering the crowd of faces, Gunderson built in a double-image. Although visitors gaze upon the mural from the vantage point of the audience, they are seeing the mural through the band's eyes. Emcee Ann Lord cozies up to the microphone as if about to turn to address the forest of faces below her, both prominent and everyday.
FACES IN THEIR PLACES
The trick to capturing a personality in paint is in the eyes and mouth, Gunderson said.
"You could put eyes and a mouth on a square block, and you'll know who it is," he said.
Gunderson had a bit more leeway here. While immortalizing several dozen Naperville residents he relied on newspaper clippings, professional portraits, award programs and illustrations of all manner of quality and angle. It was his preference to make the piece "timeless" by excluding logos and pets.
The faces reflect the different walks of life from which the band draws its audience. In territory previously uncharted for the organization, Century Walk sold 51 places on the mural for $1,000 each and raffled off five others to raise money for the $95,000 installation, which was also aided by a $60,000 grant from the city.
In addition, three band luminaries -- Koerner, Lord and longtime director Ron Keller -- and Century Walk President Brand Bobosky are immortalized on the door. Look for Keller twice -- in profile, facing the band, and also turning over a shovelful of dirt, breaking ground for the new concert center. Gunderson's infant son, Jack, rounds out the real people rendered in paint.
The stories of how each face made it to the mural are as numerous and varied as the crowd itself, Bobosky said. Wives bought faces as surprises for their husbands. Husbands, in turn, unleashed "retaliatory surprises," he said.
Rising executive Brian Schultz and developer Steve Subach put four former mayors on the mural with donations. When Schultz died in a car crash Jan. 1, his family's bank -- which he headed -- footed the bill to put him on the mural.
Several friends and neighbors sent in checks of $25 and $100 to put their beloved crossing guard on the mural, Bobosky said. Tricia Hummel, winner of the first face raffle, thought she was getting just her husband David's face painted and ended up with hers, as well. Now the two search for each other in perpetuity, she on the left side of the audience, he on the right.
Bobosky's surprise rendering in the mural came courtesy of Gunderson. Although Bobosky cringed at his inclusion -- he didn't want anyone to accuse him of nursing his ego -- his grandchildren were delighted to point out their "Bopa's" prominent nose during a visit to the park.
"I've never really had anybody that really pushed my work like that man," Gunderson said. "And I've seen how hard he works and the hoops he's jumped through to make this happen."
The decade-long work of Century Walk goes on. The mural will be dedicated, probably on Memorial Day, Bobosky said, and two other murals are under way across town. The group has seven projects to go to fulfill its goal of 30. The aim here was to create a place where people could gather and appreciate art beyond one night a week during the summer, and with that Bobosky is well pleased.
"It was a huge door, very bland," he said. "We think the mural is tying it all together. It's not just an ugly building anymore. It's a work of art."
Contact staff writer Colt Foutz at email@example.com or (630) 416-5196.