The CRE8IV Transformational Art project has splashed color all across Winnebago County since its launch in 2019. Tour some of the latest murals and the stories behind them.
Since it began in 2019, an innovative program administered by the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB) has brought a host of outstanding artists to this area to produce amazing large-scale murals on the walls of buildings in Rockford and its surrounding communities. Entitled CRE8IV (pronounced “creative”) Transformational Art, the program in the past five years has supported 28 lead artists and their crews to produce 44 examples of street art in Rockford, Loves Park, Ill., Rockton, Ill., Roscoe Ill., and Pecatonica, Ill.
“The program was originally funded by a matching grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce, Office of Tourism,” says Nicole Blough, destination development events manager at RACVB. “Every year since then it has been paid for primarily by fundraising donations and sponsorships from local people and organizations. This year’s budget was $250,000.”
“And our reach has grown tremendously,” adds Julie Huber, destination development operations manager. “Last year we had 87 applicants from coast to coast, 10 of which were selected to produce 12 projects. This year, we received 196 worldwide applications and chose 13 artists who completed 13 projects in July.”
Each year, RACVB has assembled a committee of about 15 volunteers to wade through those applications and make their eight to 10 choices. While committee membership varies from year to year, it usually includes local artists and art historians, members of the Rockford Area Arts Council, the Rockford Art Museum and RACVB staff.
“The application process lets us see the style of work for each artist,” says Blough. “Each one selected is offered a stipend to participate, usually based on the square footage of the completed mural. Once the artist is accepted, then the sponsors get involved, sharing their thoughts and ideas about what the project should look like. The artist then comes up with a design, based on his or her vision and this initial content.
“We get one round of revisions on that first design, sometimes two,” Blough adds. “Then we all sign off on that final design, so the artist can arrive here ready to start.”
“Wall selection is a fun part of the process,” says Huber. “We get more offers from building owners to utilize their walls than we have participating artists. They understand the program and are eager to join in.”
RACVB staff look at specific local neighborhoods and nearby towns that could benefit from a new public art installation, where “something bright and colorful might look nice,” says Blough. “Location and condition of the wall are always important.”
Since the beginning, CRE8IV has partnered with Painters District Council No. 30, Local 607, to prep and prime the walls so they’re ready before the artists arrive – a feature extremely popular with the artists.
“We can suggest the walls to be included, but the appropriate city council has the final say,” says Blough.
The murals are part of a wider umbrella of public art for which the RACVB is responsible. It also includes sculptures, landscaping, plantings and flowers, parkettes, and public outdoor furniture.
“Our mission is to enhance public perception of the local community and encourage tourism,” says Blough. “We want people to visit and explore the area because it’s beautiful, safe and attractive.”
To facilitate and encourage locals and visitors to seek out such attractions, the RACVB launched a free mobile passport called the Rockford Public Art Trail last month. The app for your phone helps you locate more than 80 sculptures, murals and memorials in the Rockford region. Available online at gorockford.com, the passport can be filtered to reveal locations within walking distance of each other. Registered participants can accumulate points as each location is visited, which can then be redeemed for free gifts from RACVB.
Descriptions and photographs of all murals, artists and a map of mural locations are also available at RACVB’s website.
What follows is a sampling of this year’s artists and artwork, as well as a few murals created since the first season in 2019.
“Mirror Bridge” Guard walls over Kent Creek at 3117 Auburn St., Rockford (Faces north and south)
“Among the Stars” Retaining wall at 4802 Auburn St., Rockford (Faces north)
Anthony Lewellen considers himself a working-class artist. He grew up in a rough neighborhood in Chicago and practiced graffiti art in high school.
“I used to do this stuff for free,” he recalls.
This is Lewellen’s second year participating in CRE8IV. He was given three unique locations for his murals, all of which were long and narrow walls close to the ground and just a few feet from fast-moving traffic on Auburn Street.
“I’m happy with the designs I came up with,” says Lewellen. The wall shapes were a bit difficult to paint and design for, but I like a challenge.”
Lewellen utilizes a short-throw projector at night to transfer his image onto the wall, so he can produce a large image just a small distance from the wall.
“Mirror Bridge” introduces bold colors to an otherwise bleak environment and copies mirror-like images from one side to the other. The design includes dragonflies and stylized chamomile flowers, two of Lewellen’s favorite subjects.
“Among the Stars” is intended to celebrate exploration and curiosity about things larger than ourselves. “I wanted to create something relatable that might also be inspirational,” he says.
While working on the wall on a hot 90-degree day last month, a woman in a waitress uniform stopped her car nearby and offered Lewellen a $15 “tip,” saying that she loved his work, and she wanted to buy him lunch.
“Whenever I get bogged down or discouraged, I remember incidents like that,” he says. “They remind me why I do this work: to make something beautiful because it can inspire people’s lives.”
“Synchrony” Pocket park at 122 S. Prairie St., Rockton, Ill. (Faces north)
Dustin Eckhardt is a local self-taught artist who once aspired to become a tattoo artist. This is his second time participating in CRE8IV, having produced a mural in his hometown of Loves Park, Ill., last year.
“I produce a lot of nature-inspired artwork, representing things that are found in the areas I’m painting,” says Eckhardt. “The Rockton mural contains 29 different species of bugs, birds and plants that can be found in nearby Nygren Wetland Preserve. You could even use it as a field guide for local exploration.”
He likes to produce murals with “striking bold colors, bright compositions which show a definite street art influence.”
The location of his Rockton mural will soon become a pocket park, complete with a small stage for outdoor performances, a wheelchair-accessible trail and a popup library. The wall opposite his mural will later become a community mural, where Eckhardt will sketch the outlines and the public will be invited to fill in the colors.
“I think the Rockford area is a thriving place for artists,” he says, “and I’m glad they are willing to spend time, energy and money to support public art.”
“Growth and Transformation” Goodwill Industries, 4618 E. State St., Rockford (Walls face east and south)
The artist known as JMEL (Jesse Melansson), from Truckee, Calif., participated in Rockford for the first time this year. He describes the city as “a unique space full of gems.” Melansson found the CRE8IV program advertised on publicartist.org.
“Creating murals gives me the opportunity to collaborate with diverse groups of people and create new and meaningful relationships,” he says.
Melansson creates his designs on a computer, then uses a doodle grid system to transfer them to the wall. The system uses random markings to produce reference points. He then superimposes his art on the wall, lowers the opacity of the image to reveal the reference points, and connects them with tape.
“I use a polygon style in my art which consists of a lot of triangles,” says Melansson. “I like how it looks. It’s interesting and non-traditional.”
His mural is on two walls of the Goodwill Industry building and wraps around the corner from the east wall to the south wall. It symbolically represents Goodwill’s mission: to create opportunities to grow and achieve.
“On the east wall, people are planting a seed which grows into a whimsical forest on the south wall,” says Melansson. “It references Rockford’s coin as the Forest City.”
A monarch caterpillar transforms into a butterfly (also a mission of Goodwill, to save the monarchs), while a fox watches in the woods next to an abstract Rock River.
“Having the wall prepared and primed before my arrival was amazing,” says Melansson. “It’s the first time I’ve worked where that was already done. It’s nice to be able to show up and go right to work. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to create this experience that’s going to hopefully be around for a long time.”
“Veterans Memorial” Rockford Billiard Cafe, 1436 N. Main St., Rockford, near the Auburn/Main roundabout (Faces north)
A.J. Davis resides in Denver and makes his living as a muralist, sculptor and jeweler. This was his first time in Rockford, and he was assigned a large wall near Veterans Memorial Circle, the traffic roundabout at North Main and Auburn streets.
“While I usually produce images based on native wildlife, the sponsors asked for a patriotic theme that honored veterans,” says Davis.
His creation includes a background of stars and stripes, a soldier on the right saluting toward Veterans Memorial Circle, an F-35 Joint Strike fighter flying up out of the clouds, and red poppies, a traditional symbol of loss in the military.
“I had an amazing experience working with the RACVB staff. They took really good care of me,” he says. “I also met a group of friends at a nearby restaurant who took me on a tour of Rockford. I was very impressed with the amount of murals done by artists from all over the country.”
Melansson also notes that the nearby traffic circle was “very expressive – lots of honking.”
Readers are advised to view Davis’ mural after parking nearby, rather than while navigating the roundabout.
“Ski Broncs” Mabel’s Jackpot, 5727 N. Second St., Loves Park, Ill. (Faces south)
Lisa Frost participated in CRE8IV in 2019 (along with her daughter Libby) and 2021. Last year she was hired by Byron, Ill., to help that city produce a similar program.
“Having had that experience in Rockford, I was able to guide their community to create a similar mural project,” she says.
This year she received a commission from nearby Loves Park to produce a mural on North Second Street, Loves Park’s main thoroughfare. The site chosen was a wall exposed last year when fire destroyed the building next door, one which had displayed a CRE8IV mural from that year.
Frost focused her artistic attention on the Ski Broncs, a local water ski club which performs bi-weekly all summer on the nearby Rock River.
“I didn’t want the mural to resemble advertising,” Frost says. “I want it to celebrate the feelings of water skiing, or watching them perform – flying through the air, the freedom, the movement.”
Her bold use of color, the action of the waves, sunshine on the water all add to those feelings.
“I hope people will be inspired to watch them ski, perhaps even to participate or join their club,” she says.
Frost works closely with her friend Dan Chamberlin, a member of the local painters union. He has participated in the CRE8IV project since its inception.
“We Are Rockford” Jumping Joe’s, 603 W. State St., Rockford
Ryan “Stuk One” Lape produced this mural as part of CRE8IV 2021. Originally from Rockford, he is now based in Chicago. He wanted to create an image of some of Rockford’s hometown heroes. It includes, left to right: Angel Martinez, Golden Gloves champ; Michelle Williams, bestselling author and former member of musical group Destiny’s Child; Sara Dorner, first woman president of Rockford United Labor; Bing Liu, Oscar-nominated director of “Bridging the Gap;” and Fred VanVleet, NBA superstar.
“La Chiquita” 1108 S. Main St., Rockford (Faces north)
Jenny Ustick & Atalie Gagnet met local artist Vic Rivera and his daughter, Mila Rose, while painting a mural on East State Street during CRE8IV 2019. They were inspired to feature Mila Rose when invited to produce this mural during CRE8IV 2021.
“We wanted to do something that embodied renewal and hope, that honored the culture of the neighborhood, and that featured a strong woman or girl,” says Ustick. “Mila Rose was our inspiration.”
“Have a Seat” Corner of Third and Main streets, Pecatonica, Ill. (Faces north)
Brett Whitacre created this playful, interactive mural across from a popular ice cream parlor as part of CRE8IV 2021. People can stop for a photo on the bench and position themselves under the floating hats. Here we see the Payne family from Belvidere doing just that.