In an effort to help Chicago students find a role model to look up to, local artist Chris Devins decided to literally elevate someone from the community. His planned 20-by-22-foot mural of First Lady Michelle Obama, which he plans to add to the brick exterior of Bouchet Elementary Math and Science Academy (and which was called Bryn Mawr Elementary when Obama attended grade school there in the ‘70s), will, he hopes, combat some of the stereotypical depictions of this part of the city.
“It’s a reminder that positive things do come out of these communities,” he said. “This is an idea whose time has come. I think it would mean a lot right now.”
Originally a mural artist who worked with wheat-paste and graffiti, Devins gravitated toward the creative potential of placemaking a few years ago and began working with local organizations and businesses. After getting a masters in urban planning in 2012, Devins focused on creating artwork that reflects, celebrates and ultimately, helps develop the community.
“I’m interested in work that reaffirms the identity of the community,” he says. “I realized that I was providing a cultural ambiance for local businesses, and could combine urban planning with my street art.”
Devins has created a series of works that help promote the “positive examples” that have come out of the community, featuring Chicago artists such as Chance the Rapper and Jennifer Hudson.
Devins was inspired by Lavonte Stewart, associate district director for state Senator Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago), who liked Devins’s previous work and suggested that he pursue a piece dedicated to the First Lady. He believes the proposed mural can help the community, specifically the South Shore, identify itself.
“When you promote the identity of the community, that can lead to sustainability and cultural economic development,” he says.
Subject of a successful GoFundMe campaign, Devins’s project has already hit its fundraising target. While the exact location is still being decided, he says the principal is on board, and the project will go up sometime next year.
Devins hasn’t figured out the exact portrayal he’ll select for the final mural, but he can draw from personal experience. He previously lived in Hyde Park and was a neighbor of the Obamas, whom he would run into a few times a week. He even has a letter she wrote him from the White House.
“I see her as one of the most accomplished and educated of the First Ladies,” he says. “The Obamas have a lot of style and grace, and we’re going to miss them when they’re gone.”