How A Chicago Artist Is Calling For Change Through A Large-Scale Mural That Emphasizes Reflection

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Cleveland Dean wants you to think—and that’s exactly what his public mural in Chicago’s River North neighborhood does.

Created on plywood that covers the Chicago Luxury Beds storefront due to recent weeks of unrest, the large-scale piece is part of non-profit Designs 4 Dignity’s creative initiative, Art for Dignity. “With George Floyd’s murder, the protests and buildings boarded up due to looting, they wanted artists to do something in the spirit of unity,” says Dean of the project and its collab with the furniture showroom.

Dean is known for his huge range of work, including his use of shou sugi ban, a Japanese technique of burning wood. Employing that practice for the mural, he burned the plywood to distress it and then incorporated a mix of wire mesh, foam, cardboard and enamel paint.

“It conveys struggle, apprehension, construction and deconstruction,” explains Dean, who brought on fellow creatives DJ and music producer Caswell James and DJ Christian Vera to help. “It has elements that are degraded to a point, but are still degrading.”

While an overall sense of aspiration for progress was his personal concept for the piece, Dean makes clear that he wants people to interpret the mural however they choose. “What applies to this piece is not different than what applies to my other work,” he says. “I just want people to see it and think.”

Dedicated to empowering lives through creativity, Designs 4 Dignity intends to make this an ongoing initiative, with plans for other local artists to create murals on the storefronts of Oscar Isberian Rugs, Jo Chicago Communications and Artists Frame Service. The pieces will be up for bidding later this summer at the organization’s 20th anniversary online auction. Proceeds will benefit Designs 4 Dignity, as well as the social impact group My Block, My Hood, My City and the individual artists.

Dean sees this commitment to public art as not just positive, but necessary. “Art needs to be part of the community,” he says. “When it’s out in public it forces you to look at it. It evokes certain things. It takes your mind elsewhere.”

 PHOTOS BY SUSAN AURINKO, LAURA BIAGI AND ANNE SCHULTZ