EAST CHICAGO — Felix "Flex" Maldonado was perched in a lift 30 feet up, painting a steel bridge as trains zipped overhead and semitrailers zoomed underneath.
Winds whipped. Horns blared. Traffic sped by in a relentless flow.
He wondered whether it was such a good idea.
Maldonado recently completed a massive mural that serves as a new gateway to East Chicago. He painted the 10-by-120-foot bridge spanning Indianapolis Boulevard, just west of the South Shore Line commuter train station, the biggest and busiest in the system.
The mural says "East Chicago," flanking the giant letters with ruby-red cardinals that represent the mascot of East Chicago Central High School. It's set against a bright blue backdrop meant to evoke nearby Lake Michigan.
It's a highly visible piece of art seen by at least 10,000 motorists daily. It greets visitors to East Chicago as well as rail commuters to Chicago and motorists passing through to such nearby destinations as the BP Whiting Refinery, the Horseshoe Hammond Casino or the Unilever and Cargill plants at the Five Points intersection in Hammond.
“Our city has been energized by several recent art projects, including our newly painted mural near the South Shore train," Mayor Anthony Copeland said. "This project was completed by East Chicago’s very own, Felix Maldonado. His work can be seen throughout our city and the region. We look forward to more art infusion throughout our city as part of our ongoing beautification efforts."
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Maldonado is an East Chicago native who maintains a studio in downtown Hammond. He's painted many prominent murals across Northwest Indiana, including the Jackson 5 murals in downtown Gary and Miller, Michael Jordan murals at sports bars in East Chicago, and the wildlife murals at Wolf Lake in Hammond.
He won the popular vote in a citywide contest for a new mural on the bridge after getting a general consensus of what people wanted to see up there.
"It's one of those highly visible locations," he said. "You know you're in East Chicago when you see that bridge."
He lives in East Chicago's Roxana neighborhood, just down the street from the bridge.
"I was born and raised in East Chicago. I grow up there. I've been living my life there. I used to take the train every day to go to school at the American Academy of Art."
During his teenage years, Maldonado spray-painted graffiti at the train station next door.
"As a graffiti artist, I was tagging and bombing that train station," he said. "Now I'm a professional artist sought out to paint there. It's phenomenal. It's come full circle. I'm happy and proud they accepted my piece, and I gave it my best."
As a greeting to the city, the mural placed the text "East Chicago" front and center. Maldonado originally considered depicting the Chicago skyline and the Indiana Dunes in the background.
"I decided I wanted something to reflect the city itself and its landmarks and settled on the E.C. Central Cardinals. It's the mascot and people have taken ownership of that bird. It was perfect. People are very proud of it. That's what I heard from a lot of alumni comments. It's something that brings everyone together, whether in the Harbor or the East Chicago part of the city. It was a perfect fit for everybody."
He also wanted the artwork to reflect East Chicago's position on a Great Lake.
"I settled on blue to reflect the wind and water of being so close to Lake Michigan. I wanted something a little lighter, rather than dark. When you're going into the city, you don't want a dark type of sign that seems ominous or scary. I wanted something lively bright and inviting, something that showcases the city."
Maldonado was given 18 days to finish the project. Whether there was rain, sleet, hail, snow or sun, he had to get it done.
Fortunately, the weather was warm and sunny.
But the project was still treacherous for Maldonado and assistant Omar Marin.
The Indiana Department of Transportation closed part of Indianapolis Boulevard underneath while they worked, restricting the lanes in sections to make room for the overhead lift.
"If we didn't complete it in two weeks, it would have been a disaster," he said. "It was a very happy circumstance that it was completed on time and everybody was safe."
While he's painted pieces as big as a four-story mural in downtown Gary, Maldonado had never painted over a bridge before.
"It produced a lot of stress and anxiety," he said. "It was very intense, just holding onto a basket 30 feet in the air while cars and trucks are zooming underneath. You have to be conscious of your surroundings at all times. When you're painting a building, you just need to make sure you're going up and down the ladder safely. We needed to worry about how we maneuvered the lift and about cars and people underneath. Everything had to be secured so it wouldn't fall out of the basket."
While the weather cooperated, it was stressful because of the deadline, the height and the traffic.
"You had to worry about the lift not hitting the wall. You don't want to bump into or run over anything. You need to stay on that bridge," he said. "You need to worry that a semi won't clip the bridge or the lift. There are so many factors involved. Nothing can fall out because, if you drop a brush or a paint can, you don't want that falling on a speeding car."
Motorists constantly waved and honked to show their support.
"It was appreciated, but it got to be a distraction," he said. 'You need to focus on concentrate and I felt like people were expecting me to turn around and start a conversation. This one was up there in terms of difficulty."
He worried that the trains would rumble overhead and the vibrations would be a logistical challenge for painting. But they turned out not to be much of a problem.
"They're not going very fast by the time they get to the station. They're not zooming by. They're electric and on overhead lines. They're kind of quiet. I kind of forgot about them."
But there were still plenty of logistical challenges, like trying to stay above the semis' height limits, gusts that threatened to blow the stencils when they were painting letters, or wind that could overspray paint outside the lines into the background. They had to pause every time there was a red light so nothing would fall on the stopped cars below.
He's not sure he would ever paint such a large bridge again.
"I'm very grateful for the opportunity," he said. "I'm not sure I understood how intensive the job would be."
It was such a taxing project that he took a few days off after it was all done.
"Now I know what it feels like how to run a marathon and fall to the ground afterward. That's how I felt," he said. "I spent all that time stressed out. It took a toll mentally and physically."
Maldonado has been getting back to work as he gears up for the busy summer mural-painting season. He recently completed a greenhouse in Belstra Milling Co.'s new garden center in DeMotte. It depicts daisies, peonies, black-eyed Susans, tulips and other flowers.
"It represents the foliage and flora in the Region. It's not tropical plants or anything like that," he said. "I love planting flowers and nature. People love flowers. There's no judgment. No one asks why you painted Michael Jackson or why you painted Michael Jordan in East Chicago. People understand flowers."
He's slated to paint murals this year in Hammond, Hebron, Michigan City, Indianapolis and Mexico. His next mural is on a new plaza on 119th Street in downtown Whiting. It will depict the lakefront town's history, sports and culture.
"I'm going to get that ready in time for their festivals. I'm excited these different towns trust in my vision and my work. I'm very proud and grateful."
Maldonado has created some amazing art in Northwest Indiana, said Tom Dabertin, vice president of the Whiting Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce.
“Felix is a truly phenomenal artist and his work is well-known around Northwest Indiana," he said. "We can’t wait for his latest mural in downtown Whiting at the new plaza, as we are confident that it will quickly become another destination in our community.”
Maldonado lives four blocks from the new East Chicago mural in Roxana and makes a point of passing the bridge daily.
"I hope people enjoy the mural," he said. "It's a reminder you're entering the city. You can see it a mile away northbound coming down that bridge. It doesn't get lost like a sign. It's big and a unique spot that's reflective of the city. It's a steel bridge with a railroad that ties into the concept of place. If that weren't the sign, the next thing I would have proposed would be to buy a tanker train car and park it in Kosciuszko Park."
He just wants to make his mark as an artist. Coming from a graffiti background as a member of the Crazy Indiana Style Artists, he relishes working with the medium of murals.
"I want to make something that will hopefully represent the city, organization or entity that commissions the mural. I'm proud to reflect what they're looking for. I like to contribute around Northwest Indiana and put my fingerprint on it. Art is everything. It's good. It's beneficial for our cities in many ways. It's beautification. It's education. It's learning about the town or the history of that city. It shows some vibrancy. It peppers some color into Northwest Indiana. This is going to be my legacy. This is art that I'm leaving behind for as long as I'm alive and maybe longer."
He delights in the irony of having been hired to paint a mural next door to where they used to fine him for plying his craft.
"That train station was like a newspaper for graffiti artists. It was a Who's Who of tags. It had two entrances on each side of the boulevard, so you could get away. All the graffiti writers in the city hit it. It's mind-blowing to me that I'm getting paid for painting where I once had to pay fines. It's rewarding to come full circle. They thought I was a vandal and now they hire me to beautify it. It's just funny to me."
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Laser it. Inject it. Peel it. Sculpt it. Tighten it. Treat it. Finish it.
These categories are on the marketing brochure for JEM MedSpa in Munster, where I visited for a behind-the-scenes tour with its medical director, Dr. Gus Galante, a retired plastic surgeon. (Watch a video at NWI.com.)
“There is a huge surge in taking care of ourselves, physically and emotionally, in our nation today. Northwest Indiana is no exception,” he said. “This is evidenced by the number of medspas that have opened up in the past couple of years locally.”
Medical spas are emerging across the country like wrinkles on a middle-aged person. Simply type into a search engine “medspas near me” to find one. Or 10. Most of these facilities provide nonsurgical and minimally invasive cosmetic procedures, such as Botox, fillers, lasers, chemical peels and nonsurgical fat reduction. Some medspas are higher quality and more reputable than other ones. JEM falls into this category.
I’ve known Galante for years. He is a well-respected, board-certified plastic surgeon with decades of experience in the industry.
“Cosmetic surgery space continues to expand exponentially in this sector,” he said before we toured the Munster facility. “People want procedures that are safe, effective and have little to no recovery time. We offer all of that and more here. It’s not an appointment, it’s an experience.”
This JEM MedSpa, along with locations in Orland Park and Elmhurst, opened last summer on the ground floor of a condominium building just off Calumet Avenue and 45th Avenue. It’s new, classy and youthful looking, just like the services it offers: micro-lift facials ($135), “Forever Young Fotofacials” ($375), Botox/Dysport ($14 a unit), Sculptra ($800), medical-grade peels ($140), body contour packages (starting at $4,000).
Our looks-obsessed, youth-addicted culture is fueling the medspa industry, which is growing at a 12% jump annually, with projections to reach nearly $30 billion by 2027, according to multiple reports. That’s a lot of peeling, sculpting, injecting, tightening and treating.
However, unlike most medical procedures, clients look forward to these treatments like a summer vacation to the Fountain of Youth.
“The results I received were amazing,” JEM client Vanessa Farr told me. “When I combined the fabulous results with the warm, professional atmosphere, they gained a customer for life.”
This is another key contributor to the rising revenue stream of medspas nationwide — customers who typically return again and again for more of the services. For example, JEM offers a wide array of treatments: dermal fillers, sexual health rejuvenation, nonsurgical body contouring and many others that needed explanation to me from its staff.
“There might be somebody who isn’t interested in anything about beauty, but they have stubborn hair on their face,” said Karisa Zirkelbach, the aesthetics manager. “Hair restoration is important to some of our clients.”
“Consultations are an important part of the process, asking clients their major concerns and what they want to achieve,” said Alexis Wysocki, who performs aesthetic laser and body sculpting procedures. “For some people, we start with their skin pigmentation, then focus more on their fine lines and wrinkles with micro-needling or a Halo laser treatment.”
Some treatments are less invasive, less costly and considered more of a gateway into the cosmetics medspa industry. I explore this issue on the new episode of my "She Said, He Said" podcast at NWI.com or wherever you listen to podcasts.
“For many clients, they want to age at a rate they’re comfortable with, or they want to pump the brakes on the aging process,” said Nikki Love, an aesthetic nurse injector. “Aesthetics is definitely trending toward prevention now, as opposed to waiting until you’re a surgical candidate and that’s the only option to you.”
Farr began her “skin health journey” at Galante’s medical practice in Schererville, initially with chemical peels to address age spots, fine lines and wrinkles.
“I knew I wanted to move forward with a regimen that would continue to benefit me on numerous levels as my needs progressed,” she said.
This is the inevitability of aging, at any age, but especially middle age and old age — our needs continually progress.
This just happens to be the ace in the hole for medspas: the graying, aging, wrinkling of America the Beautiful with a desperate yearning for any semblance of beauty.
It’s a powerful motivator, especially for people who failed to take care of themselves in their younger days. Too fat? Too old? Too hairy? Too much sun in your youth? Medspas cater to this population.
“Nonsurgical services are very popular because they don’t take a lot of time, there is very little down time for recovery, they’re low risk, and they’re fairly easy procedures,” Galante said.
Patient selection and patient expectations are key components at this facility. (For more info, visit Indiana.jemmedspa.com or call 219-319-1896.)
“Patients need to do it for themselves, for their own self-gratification, self-esteem and self-confidence,” he said.
Another aspect contributing to the international growth of the industry is the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted hundreds of thousands of Zoom meetings, forcing people to look at their own faces longer than they would have otherwise. They noticed every wrinkle, every sagging cheek, every flaw. Men did too, helping to make the medspa experience more mainstream. Nonstop branding campaigns selling youth and beauty also play a role. Getting old naturally isn’t as commonly accepted as it was just a few generations ago.
“I have since referred multiple people to JEM MedSpa, and each has had an equally satisfying experience,” Farr said. "As a whole, this business is very impressive."
From an investment perspective, the medspa industry is highly fractured and unconsolidated, so it invites partnering investors to get a piece of the ever-graying market. Plus, it’s grooming the TikTok generation, raised to be hypersensitive to the image of attractiveness. At any cost.
For millions of future medspa clients, “aging naturally” is an oxymoron that will never happen in their life.
The misadventures of online dating. Fussy kids in restaurants. Making up after an argument. And the worst movie spoiler alert ever. Plus, how …
Contact Jerry at Jerry.Davich@nwi.com. Watch his "She Said, He Said" podcast. Find him on Facebook. Opinions are those of the writer.
VALPARAISO — In 2020, Luke Ventrsom and Peter Krenzke placed a couple makeshift batteries on a shelf at Valparaiso University, where the two serve as professors and researchers in the mechanical engineering department. Three years later, they pulled the batteries and were still able to release their energy.
These weren't ordinary batteries, however. They were charged using solar energy.
Solar energy has been around for a long time, but there are major roadblocks to implementing it on a mass scale to fulfill the needs of our technologically advanced and high-energy incumbent society. One of those roadblocks has been storage — how to store the energy so it can be used at night or on cloudy days.
Researchers have only been able to figure out how to do this on a large scale for up to eight to 12 hours, Venstrom said. That's why he and Krenzke believe they've made a breakthrough — storing energy for three years and releasing it with virtually no loss.
"The idea is to store up excess solar energy," he said. "There is more than enough solar energy in the summertime in a place like Northwest Indiana to meet all the energy needs in the summer and the winter, when we don't have as much sunlight. The only challenge is that we don't right now have a way to store it and release it in the winter when we need it. That's the challenge we're trying to solve."
Venstrom and Kenzke, who have undertaken other projects with concentrated solar, hope this battery can solve this issue.
To create it, they heated up a block of a special material called metal oxide to about 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit — 10 times hotter than you'd typically cook a chicken in the oven — using a giant solar furnace they have on campus, Venstrom explained.
That solar furnace consists of an array of mirrors that channels sunlight and heat onto one concentrated object, in this case, metal oxide. However, the researchers needed the metal oxide to be heated evenly.
"I sometimes think of it like trying to heat up egg in a microwave," he said. "A frozen egg patty heats terribly in a microwave. The inside always stays frozen and it tends to heat from the outside in. It's the same idea."
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Venstrom said they had turn the material into a sand-like powder while they processed it and had to rotate it so the powder got mixed up and heated evenly. To achieve this, they created a rotating reactor under the solar furnace.
"Think of it like a cement truck, but it doesn't spin quite as fast. But it's up, and the open end of the cement truck has concentrated light in it."
They inserted the powder into one end of the reactor. Because of the heat from the solar furnace, when it emerged from the reactor, it came out really hot. They then turned it back into a solid block.
Three years later, they were still able to access that heat, which can be used to create electricity the same way it would've if it had been harnessed from the sun that day.
"We chose three years," Venstrom said, "but I think if we would've kept this thing sitting there for 10 years, it would've had the same result."
While he's extremely excited about the breakthrough, Venstrom cautioned that they haven't yet come close to creating a workable model that can be implemented on a large scale to truly solve this storage dilemma.
"We have demonstrated that it is technically feasible," he said. "It is technically possible. The question now is, can we make it happen at a cost that is low enough to be interesting in the marketplace? And that's the next question. That's really where we're at now."
One key aspect to that challenge, for example, is the fact that there are many types of metal oxide, and they want to identify which is the best for this purpose.
"We've demonstrated that it's technically possible with a couple of candidates," he said, "but which one is going to be the lowest cost?"
Venstrom said two candidates seem most promising: iron oxide, which is really inexpensive but wasn't one they included in their original experiment, meaning they'll have to ensure it works the same way as the others; and cobalt oxide, which they proved was a really effective battery but is pricier.
Venstrom believes that within the next two to three years, they'll begin constructing models of what it would actually cost to build these systems to scale in hopes that a company might be interested in taking it to market.
Venstrom and Krenzke aren't the only ones working on this issue, though. Euronews reports that a group of Swedish scientists at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenberg have created a system in a lab that can reportedly store energy for 18 years.
Additionally, a group of researchers from Michigan State University and Arizona State University have received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to tackle this problem, according to the MSU news bureau.
"This is the next big thing in energy storage," Venstrom said. "We have figured out how to do short-term energy storage up to six, eight, maybe even 12. As soon as you start talking about storing energy up and releasing it a week later, a month later, six months later, a year or two later, nobody has any idea how we're going to do that cost-effectively.
"Lots of potential solutions exist. No one knows what the lowest-cost option is going to be. We think our little metal oxide material has a lot of promise, but we have a lot of work to do."
U.S. Sen. Todd Young visited Valparaiso University Wednesday where he toured part of the campus and participated in a roundtable discussion.