Campustown murals revitalize Green Street


Irene Maria Bogusz

The new Alma Mater mural on the east side of Skyline Tower on Green Street was done during the summer. The mural was done by Chicago artist Levar Hoard who was inspired to do the mural after passing the empty building one day.

By Yuzhu Liu, Assistant Features Editor

When Chicago mural artist Levar Hoard walked down Green Street a year ago, he saw there are 25 spaces of blank wall dominating the block between Fourth and Fifth streets.

As the sun went down, the entire street sunk into shadows, but Hoard looked up and saw the smooth surface of that wall struck by the orange glow.

Over the summer, Hoard created a mural featuring the Alma Mater statue on that same wall, the east side of Skyline Tower. He said he wanted to create a new landmark for the University at this prominent location.

“It was just a no-brainer to try to develop a classic mural, a mural that was contemporary but would age and last forever,” Hoard said.

Hoard introduced the two muralists who completed the painting: Ryan “Yanoe” Sarfati and Eric “Zoueh” Skotnes. Hoard said when people take a closer look, they will marvel at the incredible details which were all done by hand.

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Sarfati and Skotnes said the 160-foot mural was their tallest piece of work. To fit the elongated wall, the artists designed the mural on a DNA strand. The helix wraps in the drapery at the bottom, travels through the florals and Alma’s shoulders and waves into the violet cloudscape.

“It emphasizes the underlying movement,” Sarfati said. “The DNA spiral is one way that you can keep the viewers engaged all the way to the top, and then they’ll want to view it all the way back down.”

Hoard said the mural signals the soul of the Campustown community, just as the word Alma does, meaning “soul” in Latin.

When first visiting the University a year ago, Hoard said it wasn’t long before he recognized the institute’s superior academic accomplishments. However, he said he couldn’t find the same innovation and energy in the mostly brown streets on campus.

“When you go into a community and the art looks amazing, that’s probably a signal that that’s an amazing community,” Hoard said. “When you go into a community with no art or poor examples of art, it may be a sign that this is not an intellectually progressive community.”

That was when Hoard came up with the Boneyard Area Mural !nitiative or BAM!, a multi-year project focused on revitalizing Campustown with public art. He noticed the juxtaposition of dated and modern buildings on campus and considered art a link between the University’s past and present.

Matt Garrison is the CEO of R2 Companies. The real estate firm acquired the Bankier Apartments and initiated the makeover of the Green Street frontage. As an alumnus, Garrison said he witnessed the dramatic change in the streetscape since he graduated in 1998. Garrison said he understood that Green Street was the center of college life and felt an obligation to improve the district when returning to campus as an investor.

“We have high rises and parking podiums that are commercially successful, but they need to have a soul,” Garrison said. “Imagine Green Street and the Boneyard with dozens of high-impact murals. It’s the same street, but it’s better as well.”

Garrison believed well-executed public art could create a network effect. He expected that the iconic Alma Mater mural would attract attention and foot traffic, boost retail, inspire other property owners to bring more art and eventually breathe life into campus.

According to Hoard, BAM! features three other murals along the Boneyard and plans to have another four coming up this year, including one of the world’s largest optical illusion murals. Another highlight is a two-year mural project at Park Place Tower, where art and design will completely change the postmodern architecture.

“This is a very advanced concept,” Hoard said. “Everything we’ve done in Champaign has been one of a kind. You can only see it in Champaign, and no other examples exist anywhere else in the world.”

Hoard said this project represents a world-class artist team who will draw global eyes to Campustown. Besides murals, he said BAM! will also renovate the Boneyard Greenway and trail, including redesigned bike lanes and better lighting.

“This is a University that produced a student that created the world’s first visible light LED, but when you go on the Boneyard, you have 1970s yellow sodium lamps,” Hoard said. “That’s a disconnect for us, so we would like to see high-quality LED lights on the boneyard to reflect Nick Holonyak Jr., who created the world’s first visible light LED.”

As the creator of the first mural of BAM!, Skotnes said he felt honored to be involved in the initiative that he believes will transform Campustown into an art destination.

“Bringing these amazing public art pieces together … will be very impactful for years to come,” Skotnes said.

Garrison added that the public art will show the University to visitors as a dynamic community and change their first impression of the campus and attract more potential students.

“With public art, we make an investment and sit back and watch it take on a life of its own,” Garrison said. “Campustown is a creative cluster of energy, youth and potential. We want to celebrate this and hopefully help it continue to flourish for the next generation.”

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