Community comes together to paint its history

West Englewood captures women of history including Englewood resident Gwen Johnson (pictured below) in new mural inspired by the women’s marches. 

By Kendrah Villiesse

A once-bare wall in West Englewood now displays a vibrantly colored mural that honors historically powerful women. 

Installed on the side of 63rd Street Food and Liquor between Honore and Wood streets, the 30-foot-long mural of “What We Create” was designed and executed in two months by Cyd Smillie. Community members, and children from I Grow Chicago, a grass roots organization, participated.

“I wanted to do something to honor and celebrate what women have done, continue to do and can go on to do,” Smillie said. “The inspiration was all the women’s marches this year.” 

The mural was supported by I Grow, which provides programs such as community pantries, yoga and tutoring for the community, according to Zelda Mayer, the organization’s director of development. 

The mural’s goal was to bring the community together and create hope, Mayer said. 

“[Smillie] started with the idea of the power and the connected experiences of women,” Mayer said. “As she was painting and talking to different people in the community, she started to pick out people who are pillars in the community, women who are strengths that everyone knows and talks about.” 

Although the mural focuses on women in history, it pays tribute to Englewood residents like Gwen Johnson, who has been an active community member for more than four decades, according to Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th Ward). 

“[Johnson] has been instrumental—not only with I Grow Chicago, but also before then—and has been like a mother to the entire block,” Lopez said. “She’s been very active in trying to maintain the integrity of her community despite the challenges it faces with violence and vacancy. She has really shown the subsequent generations what it means to stand up and be a positive influence in your community.”

Lopez said the mural has been a community-led effort and has highlighted a narrative the neighborhood wants to be known for while also giving hope. 

“Projects like this are important,” Lopez said. “Not simply for putting art on a wall because it is so much more than that; this is about the community being able to tell its story in a positive way and showcase who we are in a manner that is often not represented in the news.” 

While Englewood is often portrayed as a blighted area, Smillie’s experience was different. Neighbors approached her with food and water while painting, she said, noting she was touched by these gestures from strangers. 

Smillie recalled a community member telling her, “You’ve given us back our heritage.” Overall, the reaction to the mural has been very enthusiastic, she said. 

“I’ve gotten a tremendous response that has exceeded my hopes,” Smillie said. “I’ve been privileged enough to recognize what art can do for a community to frame conversations and bring people together.”